International chambers of commerce and business organisations have long been concerned about the adequacy of the provision of places in international schools in Hong Kong. With the economy growing strongly in recent years, companies are worried they would be unable to hire top-quality employees from around the world because their children may not be able to enrol in a suitable school here.
The good news is that the number of international school places is growing. According to the government, 5,000 places will come on stream in the next five years on top of the 36,000 places available in the 2010-11 school year. This will help alleviate concerns about a potential shortage.
But it is not the whole story. There is already a mismatch in supply and demand. Last year, there were more than 4,000 vacant places in the sector, yet some of our city's 47 international schools have long waiting lists for entry.
Simply put, the quantity of places is only part of the equation; quality is another vital factor. In this regard, it might be useful to ask: 'What are we setting out to achieve? What should an international school education provide?'
Taking a broad perspective, international education is crucial to developing and maintaining a city's diversity and its connection with the rest of the world, especially in a place like Hong Kong, which is an important global and regional centre for trade and sectors like financial services. To meet these objectives, international education should offer the 'extra something' to students and be able to offer local and global components to enrich students' learning.
This is not always the case at present. In fact, most international schools do not actually provide an international education; instead, they offer a national curriculum leading to foreign qualifications for entry into a national education system overseas. They are really national schools in an international context.
Local educational institutions have a responsibility to lead the way in Hong Kong, as well as Asia, and embrace a new set of standards and a vision that revolves around students being internationally minded global citizens.
We must promote dual-language education, in Chinese and English, from early childhood education right through our school system. International education should be a transformative process that occurs within the student as he or she is guided through the content and process of education to shift from local to global.
As such, an international education has a crucial role to play in fostering greater understanding between different cultures and bridging the gap. It should promote cultural, intellectual and ethnic diversity and help young people develop the ability to function in an increasingly multicultural, international society.
These days, technological change is rapidly redefining the way in which we live, and turning the world into a global village.
For schools, this new era has not only opened up a vast array of new tools and methods for teaching, it is also an opportunity to develop new objectives and set higher standards for national and international education alike.
In the Hong Kong context, we are blessed by our position as a key interface between East and West. We need to build on our advantages and open a debate about how our city can provide a world-leading international educational experience not only at the school but also the tertiary level.
While providing sufficient places for students, let's put the focus on quality and strive to upgrade our entire international school sector. This dovetails with the strong efforts being promoted by the government to develop Hong Kong as a regional education hub.
The success and longevity of our international education system rely on our ability to foster and fortify unity and understanding between various stakeholders such as the government, the providers, end users and the community in general.
Priscilla Yeung is deputy director of Yew Chung Education Foundation