In most advanced countries there is provision of free education throughout primary and secondary years. It is an historical anomaly that this is not so in Hong Kong, where it ends after Form Three. For subsequent years, in government and aided schools, students pay from $5,050 to $8,750 a year. Now Education secretary Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung is considering increasing those fees as part of efforts to cut the budget deficit. For a knowledge-based society, education is of fundamental importance and should be available to all children, regardless of circumstances, through the basic school years, which end here with A-levels. Increasing fees for the last four years, which would hurt many families strained by economic hardship, would be a retrograde move. Schooling is sacrosanct for everyone in Hong Kong, and that includes the international community. But nothing has caused such disquiet among the latter as the threat hanging over subsidies for its children's education. Despite the concern shown by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa over this issue when addressing businessmen on Friday, Professor Li yesterday affirmed the grant received by the English Schools Foundation was still under review. This time he questioned why the ESF should enjoy such privilege when other international schools received nothing. But that is a poor argument as students in several of the schools he mentioned receive support from their home countries. Besides, what is at stake is not the interests of ESF schools, but families who rely on them for affordable, quality education. Many could not pay the fees in the private sector. The ESF was set up as part of public, not private, provision, to educate students best taught in English as a native, rather than second, language. The government has since increased choice, including encouraging the establishment of other international schools. Today, schools operating under the Direct Subsidy Scheme and private independent schools also compete for ESF clientele. But there is no indication that these schools can cater for the full range of ESF students, particularly non-Chinese speakers. Moreover, unlike the ESF, which admits children of all abilities, new DSS schools are highly selective. Professor Li has a duty to consider where to trim expenditure. But Hong Kong as an international city will suffer if affordable education for all citizens and taxpayers is removed.