The government has been reluctant to concede that Hong Kong has a shortage of international school places for the families of expatriates, pointing to the prospect of a few thousand extra places in schools yet to be built. Now it has given a nod to the concerns of the foreign business community by imposing a cap of 30 per cent on the number of local students, but only in new schools in or on government property, leaving more places in the future for expatriate families. That does not convey a sense of urgency, nor reflect a warning from the local American Chamber of Commerce, backed up by the concerns of its British and Canadian counterparts, that the threat of the shortage of places to the city's world-class status has reached crisis point.
The issue is whether long waiting lists for international schools are a disincentive to talent that Hong Kong needs to attract to maintain its hub status as the focus of global economic growth swings to Asia. It raises the question of what international schools are for. They may have emerged to meet the demand from expatriates for a quality education in English. But most have evolved, along with the English Schools Foundation, into a de facto private-school sector with large local enrolments. Local families who can afford it, including government officials, consider the cost worth it in terms of outcomes and access to future opportunities.
Local education, including subsidised schools, is open to all. But it is geared towards Chinese-speaking children. An education outside of the local system represents choice and diversity. Unfortunately the choice is denied to all but the well-off. In countries where government recognises the educational role of the private sector by subsidising it, this does not necessarily democratise access to it. But at least it can lead to an expansion of the number of places as sought by foreign business lobbies and local parents.
Subsidies alone are not a lasting solution. Elsewhere, in fact, they are blamed for entrenching inequity, often under the auspices of churches who otherwise abhor social segregation. The government must give private schools a run for their money by building on recent education reforms and driving the pursuit of excellence through a rounded education. Direct subsidy schools would be a good place to start. Then local schools might not only win the confidence of more local parents but the high achievers could be an option for foreign students.
There is clearly a need to ensure people who come here from overseas to pursue their careers have schools for their children. More must be done to increase the number of places at international schools. But the longer term aim should be to put in place an education system that provides equal opportunities for all.