Teachers reject grant scheme

TEACHERS have snubbed a government grant scheme offering more than $48 million to help pay their mortgages.

Less than 1,500, or 10 per cent, of the 15,000 teachers eligible had applied when the scheme closed in mid-July, and the Government may re-open it later this month.

Teachers say the grants available under the scheme are too small and cover only up to a third of the average monthly interest payment. They also say eligibility criteria are too harsh.

The Mortgage Interest Subsidy Scheme, announced by Financial Secretary Hamish Macleod in his last budget, promises to provide housing benefits for staff in subvented schools, and health and welfare bodies.

Administered by the Education Department, the scheme will cost taxpayers $48.2 million in the first year to subsidise 2,000 teachers and 110 health or welfare staff. However, only 1,300 teaching and 280 health and welfare staff had handed in application forms by the deadline.

Professional Teachers Union chairman and legislator Cheung Man-kwong said the grants were too small to be attractive.

''We are talking about repaying mortgage loans. It is no use granting us $2,000 or $3,000 a month,'' said Mr Cheung.

He added that the strict criteria had barred needy teachers from the scheme, which requires applicants to have served in his respective sector for at least 10 years. And they or their spouse must not be enjoying other housing benefits.

Mr Cheung said: ''The most needy are those newly-wed teachers aged 25 to 30 years. Those who have taught for more than 10 years are mostly in their late 30s or 40s. Many of them have already bought flats.'' The Hong Kong Subsidised Secondary School Council's president, Hudson Soo Yee-yau, said the requirements should be relaxed to allow teachers with five years' service to apply.

Mr Soo agreed the scheme could help relieve the teacher wastage problem, if it was successful, and hoped the department would consult them when reviewing the programme next year.

The department's senior executive officer, Patrick Chung Chan-yau, said the scheme was not aimed at helping teachers buy homes. He believed the grants could be helpful to some.

As an example, Mr Chung cited the case of a principal who earned $54,000 a month. He would be entitled to a subsidy of more than $3,750 a month under the scheme, given a mortgage interest of 8.25 per cent.

He said the department was considering re-opening applications later this month so as to use the full quota.

''It is the first year of the scheme. Understandably, some teachers may hold a wait-and-see attitude.''