We can't put a price on education, and we certainly can't measure value for money, the way we do for other goods, when it comes to providing high-quality education for our children. The fee rises by the English Schools Foundation (ESF) have become a subject of perennial debate and never-ending tug of war between school management and parents.
Parents have been told to expect a further monthly fee rise of up to 4 per cent from September, in addition to the new HK$25,000 capital levy. The ESF says the increases are necessary to fund a pay rise for teachers to keep salaries competitive and for the continuing expansion and improvement of services and equipment, as well as to counter inflation. The ESF board of governors is expected to make a decision next month.
Parents have vehemently opposed the proposed increases, which will bring secondary school fees at the government-subsidised schools close to HK$100,000 per child per year. They are asking for a freeze in fees and the scrapping of the HK$25,000 refundable capital levy.
Since the 2004-05 school year, fees for ESF primary schools have risen to HK$61,000 from HK$47,300 - a 29 per cent increase. Secondary school fees have gone up by 19 per cent to HK$93,500.
Parents object to the increases as they believe the ESF should contribute to the city's educational development with the provision of good and affordable education. They argue that the foundation has a significant role to play in maintaining Hong Kong's status as an international city by nurturing the next generation.
Their argument is only partially correct. We can't deny that, as an advanced city and a global financial centre, Hong Kong must maintain its competitive edge by nurturing talent to compete on the international stage. In the process of producing talent to boost our capability as a knowledge-based society, we must invest abundantly in education.
But we get what we pay for, and if we want to become the best of the best, we must be willing to pay top dollar for it. As the clich? goes, there are no free lunches. If someone has to pay for it, the question is, who?
ESF schools should be treated like the other local schools that come under the Direct Subsidy Scheme. Yet, the government subvention to the ESF was capped a decade ago and has been declining since. The figure now stands at HK$283 million a year.
We shouldn't forget that about 70 per cent of ESF students are locals while the remainder come from expatriate families. If local students at other local institutions receive an annual government subsidy of HK$30,000 per student, why shouldn't local ESF students be given the same financial aid?
It could easily be done because the system is already in place and the funds are available. It would certainly lessen the financial burden for many middle-class families.
Another point worth noting is that it is unfair for parents to block the pay rise. They should remember that the local currency is pegged to the US dollar, and the majority of ESF teachers are not from the US, but from Britain and Australia. So, in order to counter the depreciation of exchange rates against the Hong Kong dollar, the only viable option is to adjust their salaries upwards to make up for the currency difference.
It's rather baffling to see that government subventions for ESF students have been diminishing over the past few years while funding for aided local schools has been on the rise. The ESF and local schools co-exist in the same system and complement each other, so there is no reason the foundation should be given a smaller slice of the pie.
Continuing investment in education is essential, and providing quality education is vital to a city's long-term development and capacity-building. A correct and encompassing approach is to provide equal resources to schools and educational projects, to achieve the goal of offering quality education for all.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator