Why is a vote on increased Hong Kong education funding so important?
The Post explains the intricacies involved in the HK$3.6 billion funding request and why pan-democrats are likely to slow down its approval but not reject it
Hong Kong’s legislature is scrutinising an application for a HK$3.6 billion boost in funding for education – an election pledge made earlier this year by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
Scrutiny of the funding request was dragged out at the last Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday morning after relations between the pan-democratic bloc and the government soured in the wake of the court ruling last week unseating four popularly elected lawmakers.
The pan-democrats, who originally backed the plan, asked numerous questions and called on the government to amend the proposal during the four-hour morning meeting, but their rivals see the move as a stalling tactic to drag out the debate.
This is why the once widely supported proposal now faces various obstacles.
Q: How did the idea of spending an additional HK$5 billion on education come up?
Lam first floated the idea in her election manifesto earlier this year when she ran for the city’s top job. Listing education as one of her policy priorities, she wrote that “some [education] problems urgently call for additional resources”. She proposed increasing recurrent expenditure on education by HK$5 billion a year.
Between Lam’s election and her assumption of office, she met different stakeholders on her proposal to ensure support.
Lam attended her first question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council on July 5 – her fifth day in office – when she formally announced the HK$3.6 billion package – the first part of her HK$5 billion initiative. On the same day, education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung announced who would benefit from the extra spending.
To ensure the expenditure could be used in the new school year beginning in September,Lam asked for the item to be moved up to top of the Finance Committee agenda.
Q: What will the HK$5 billion education expenditure cover?
The most significant item will be an annual HK$30,000 subsidy to students taking full-time self-financing tertiary courses. Students taking eligible undergraduate programmes in mainland institutions will receive HK$5,000 annually.
Several pan-democrats urged Lam to expand the scope of the scheme to cover self-financing programmes offered by the eight public universities.
The teacher-to-class ratio in public primary and secondary schools will be increased by 0.1, meaning there will be 2,350 more permanent teachers.
Extra staff will also be added to coordinate work for pupils with special education needs. Another 1,000 information technology professionals will be added to primary and secondary schools.
Special schools will also receive more teaching and allied health resources to support pupils.
Q: Why is scrutiny of the funding request being dragged out?
The funding boost initiated by Lam originally won landslide support across the political spectrum and was regarded as a good start for her in her bid to mend government ties with the pan-democrats, which hit a new low during predecessor Leung Chun-ying’s term.
But the brief truce was spoiled by the High Court ruling last Friday stripping four pro-democracy lawmakers – Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Edward Yiu Chung-yim – of their seats over improper oath-taking.
Although the legal challenge was orchestrated by Leung, the pro-democracy bloc argued that Lam had the responsibility to atone for the move they likened to a “declaration of war” on Hongkongers.
On the eve of the Finance Committee meeting, the pan-democrat bloc warned it would only scrutinise the education funding request and would drag out debate on other applications as “business could no longer be usual” in the legislature.
Q: Will the pan-democrats vote down the funding request?
While the pan-democratic bloc in general agreed that it should hit out at the government for the disqualification of lawmakers, many of them said they would find it difficult to vote down the package that was widely supported by the public. Some also worried that blocking it would trigger a backlash in society and make it tougher for them to win public support over the disqualification case.
As tensions between the government and the pro-democracy camp escalated, the Professional Teachers’ Union – the biggest union in the education sector – wrote to lawmakers urging them to back the funding request as soon as possible or else schools might not be able to enjoy the new resources in the September term.
The camp failed to reach a consensus on strategy at its first meeting on Monday. While Eddie Chu Hoi-dick argued that things should no longer be normal in the Legislative Council, others argued education funding should not be used as a bargaining chip as even the camp itself had been making calls for increased spending for years.
They eventually reached an agreement to scrutinise only education funding and drag out debate on other items. However, they stopped short of endorsing the education request.
Q: Will tensions between the government and pan-democrats affect other funding requests?
The education funding request is the first item on the agenda – and also the only item which pan-democrats promised to scrutinise. There are seven other items including an applications relating to the Tung Chung new town extension, the development and expansion of three hospitals, the building of a columbarium, crematorium and related facilities at Sandy Ridge Cemetery and a pay rise for civil servants. It remains to be seen whether these items are voted on.