Keep an eye on ever-rising school fees
Fee revision process must be transparent as the cost of education rises to levels that are unaffordable for most ordinary families
Citizens have legitimate expectations that they will not be ripped off when it comes to basic needs such as power supply, transportation and education. It is good to hear that the government has exercised its power to reject tuition fee increases sought by six private and international schools in the new academic year, the first time it has turned down such requests in four years. But whether officials could have rejected other such unjustified applications remains unclear, as the public has no information to make an informed judgment under the current obscure adjustment mechanism.
Given fee increases were rubber-stamped in the past, the Education Bureau’s refusal to allow the applications by the six schools has understandably raised eyebrows, even more so when it followed criticisms by the Ombudsman of what has been described as a lax fee revision process. An investigation by the government watchdog is still ongoing.
It gives the impression that the bureau is getting tough only because of pressure. The average increases – 5.94 per cent for direct subsidy schools, 5.71 per cent for private schools and 4.67 per cent for international schools – may not seem very high but they still outstrip inflation. This year, the bureau approved fee revisions by 173 schools, including all those put forward by direct subsidy schools. One school in Tai Po was allowed to raise its fees by 20 per cent to an annual HK$19,500.
The bureau had reportedly rejected all but two of the 892 cases applications over the previous six years. The denial of another six this year is therefore a step forward. But without knowing the reasons for the decisions, it is hard to judge whether the past increases were fully justified. The lack of transparency does not square with the government’s aspiration to be open and accountable.
The Ombudsman has initiated an investigation into a mechanism that is too often taken for granted. The public looks forward to the outcome of the probe, which hopefully will further improve the approval mechanism. The role of the Education Bureau as the gatekeeper cannot be overstated. It is incumbent upon officials to ensure that fees remain affordable and reasonable.