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Catholic school’s bid to charge fees turned down by Hong Kong authorities amid fears it would become preserve of rich and famous

Government-funded Wah Yan College wanted more autonomy, but critics said move to make parents pay HK$20,000 a year would put it out of reach of city’s poorer residents

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 10:39pm

A prestigious Catholic boys’ school’s plan to charge parents up to HK$20,000 (US$2,250) per year has been shot down by education authorities.

Wah Yan College’s application to charge fees and have more autonomy was rejected amid public criticism that changing its status would put it out of reach of poorer students. The public secondary school – which counts among its alumni members of the city’s elite, such as former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and former government minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung – said on Wednesday its application to become a direct subsidy scheme (DSS) school had been turned down.

Public schools in the city are fully government-funded and parents do not pay fees, but DSS schools receive some government help and charge fees, giving them more flexibility in areas such as admissions and curriculum.

“While we are [very] disappointed at their decision, we are determined to continue with our vision of finding ways to make Jesuit education available to students from different socio-economic backgrounds and our commitment to improving the quality of our education,” Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, supervisor at the school, said.

“We believe, as people of faith, light can be found in darkness. Blessing can also be disguised in disappointment.”

Chow said the school received word on the Education Bureau’s decision on Tuesday.

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A bureau spokeswoman said it had considered the application in a “neutral and balanced manner”.

She added that after a detailed review, the bureau considered that the school had failed to meet the requirements for joining the DSS scheme.

Before Wah Yan’s application, the bureau had rejected 12 such cases, the spokeswoman said.

The Wan Chai institution, whose stated vision is to train students to have qualities such as compassion and to contribute to the welfare of all, particularly the poor and neglected, was criticised when it first revealed its interest in joining the scheme last year.

But one notable alumnus said he was disappointed by the rejection. Former Wah Yan student Kwok Wai-keung, who now sits in the Legislative Council, said: “Initially when Wah Yan announced that it wanted to become a DSS school, we, alumni, were concerned that it would become a school exclusively for the rich.

“But after we heard the rationale behind the decision from the principal and supervisor – that the school fees would not be very expensive, and how the plan would help curriculum development and facilities improvement – we thought it deserved our support.”

According to consultation documents on Wah Yan’s website, alumni and parents had indicated “overwhelming support” for the switch, while teachers were split on whether to back the proposal.

At the heart of public concerns was the fear the school would become exclusively for the rich and privileged, as other DSS schools that have produced the city’s well-known business and political figures charge fees which discourage poorer students.

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For example, Diocesan Boys’ School in Mong Kok, and St Paul’s Co-educational College in Mid-Levels – which produced top students in this year’s Diploma of Secondary Education exam – charged students HK$48,650 and HK$58,000 for the 2017-18 school year respectively for the DSE programme.

To allay concerns, Wah Yan had pledged to keep school fees to about HK$20,000.

As of September 2017, there were 73 primary and secondary schools on the DSS scheme, with about 1,000 government and government-aided schools.

Another elite school, St Paul’s Secondary School in Happy Valley, had its application to become a DSS school rejected by the bureau in 2013. It is believed that the rejection was caused in part by strong opposition from parents and alumni.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said after an event on Wednesday that, when looking at such applications, the bureau usually considers the views of concerned parties, the school’s proposal, whether it can provide quality education, and whether its financial situation would remain stable.

Dr Samuel Cheng Kin-tak, vice-chairman of the DSS Schools Council, observed that the bureau tended to be more willing to approve applications from schools with poorer finances, compared with the traditional elite schools.

Without referring to the case specifically, education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said that a lot of elite schools were opting to try joining the DSS. He said the system was not good for education equality and should be reviewed.