Even Hong Kong's sought-after private schools cannot ignore customer needs

Kelly Yang says private schools must update their management style and be run more like a company, prizing feedback and quality control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2015, 3:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 June, 2015, 4:42pm

Talk to any parent from the Canadian International School and - with nine teachers sacked just this month - you get a sense of just how deeply precarious school politics can be. At the heart of the debacle is the question: who "owns" a school?

This is an important question for all schools in Hong Kong. When it comes to how a school should be run, do we listen to the board, the parents or the teachers? If schools were companies, with their parent companies listed on the stock exchange, the matter would be simpler. In a regular company, the shareholders appoint the board and the board monitors the company. Its performance is measured by how many people buy their product.

But schools are not like regular companies. Their product - education - depends on who is buying it (students) and who is delivering it (teachers and administrators). It's hard to define who the "shareholders" are, but it's certainly not just the board. Unlike those who have stock in a company, many board members no longer have vested interests in the school as their children may have left. Those with "capital", so to speak, are the parents, students and teachers.

This is where the Canadian debacle gets puzzling. It's as if the school has forgotten the people who pay its bills - the parents and students - and the people who deliver their product - their teachers. Combined, these two sets are the product.

Why would a school choose to hurt its own product and alienate its customers? Is it the arrogance stemming from long waiting lists? Knowing there is a lack of options for parents? Certainly, this would not be tolerated in the corporate world, where the customer is king.

Yet, whenever I bring this argument up with school administrators, the rebuttal is always the same: the customer is not king here because this is Hong Kong and the customer always moves on, as do the teachers.

Well, build a better product and maybe the stakeholders won't move, I say. The private school model is a dinosaur. Which other organisation can get away with charging people astronomical fees for products they aren't happy with yet buy anyway, and then, when problems arise, everyone's too scared to complain?

The days of the dinosaur are over. What we need is a school that's run as efficiently as a company, is responsive to customer feedback and input, has quality control measures in place to assure accountability, yet has the heart and soul of a non-profit. And, ideally, one that's affordable.

We're not there yet. But there's no reason why we can't get there. The only thing stopping us is fear and, together, we can overcome it.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk