Hong Kong should invest in its future by fully subsidising kindergartens
Everyone knows Hong Kong society is ageing rapidly. Our previous and current chief executives have been acting like cheerleaders for young couples to give birth to more children. So expanding free education to kindergartens is a no-brainer. But, like everything it does, our government only goes half way. It's been eight years since education officials introduced partial subsidies for parents to pay for half-day kindergartens run by non-profit groups.
The Education Bureau has finally come up with a report recommending full subsidies, but only to half-day operations. Full-day schools will only receive subsidies capped at 30 per cent above those proposed for half-day sessions.
If you are willing to pay billions to cover kindergartens, why nickel-and-dime the rest?
Decades of research has shown the benefits of quality early-childhood education. It confers life-long benefits as such children tend to perform better in school, are less likely to become delinquents, and earn more in their jobs than those without it.
But the colonial government took little interest in early education, preferring to let market forces work their magic. So kindergarten quality can vary greatly from school to school.
The post-handover government has been more enlightened, if slow-moving.
Kindergartens have always been as much about education as childcare. A new survey by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong found 88 per cent of families with children in kindergarten spend more than 20 per cent of household income on their education. Of these, one in five families pay more than 50 per cent.
Providing full subsidies - for both half and full-day kindergartens - will considerably lessen their financial burden, especially for low-income households.
Hong Kong's fertility rate is 1.1 births per woman, well below the 2.1 rate required to maintain the current population level. In 15 years, one in four Hong Kong people will be over the age of 65.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has done more than his predecessors to promote more births. Children's allowance for tax deductions, for example, has been raised to HK$100,000 per child, double that in 2009/10.
Still, it's education that costs the most. It's time to go all the way, to offer full subsidies to cover all non-profit kindergartens.