Run­away ESF in­fla­tion lim­its op­tions for par­ents

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

An­other year, an­other big fee in­crease at the English Schools Foun­da­tion (ESF). Like clock­work, year af­ter year, it has raised fees to lev­els that now ap­proach the pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive in­ter­na­tional schools. In the past, it was sup­posed to of­fer an al­ter­na­tive but heav­ily sub­si­dized form of school­ing for stu­dents — of­ten from ex­pa­tri­ate fam­i­lies — who could not eas­ily in­te­grate into the lo­cal school sys­tem with its tough Chinese-language re­quire­ment. But over the years, it has slowly mor­phed into just an­other chain of in­ter­na­tional schools for rich fam­i­lies or those lucky enough to have an ex­pat pay pack­age.

This year is no ex­cep­tion. Jaws drop on the news that tu­ition fees will be raised 5.4 to 27.5 per­cent for its schools in the com­ing aca­demic year. De­pend­ing on their child’s school and grade level, par­ents will pay from slightly less than HK$90,000 to HK$151,000. That’s still a bit less than the most ex­pen­sive in­ter­na­tional schools with mil­lion-dol­lar deben­tures but much more than lo­cal ones. How did this come to pass?

The short an­swer — the gov­ern­ment is phas­ing out long-stand­ing sub­si­dies. The longer an­swer — the ESF has been a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. Peo­ple have long been ar­gu­ing whether the gov­ern­ment has made the right de­ci­sion to cut fund­ing, and whether the ESF de­serves such treat­ment. But the out­come is that the spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gion gov­ern­ment is more than happy to wash its hands of the ESF that is widely per­ceived as an in­sti­tu­tional le­gacy of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism in Hong Kong. It was, af­ter all, set up in the 1960s for Bri­tish fam­i­lies in Hong Kong.

Mean­while, de­spite com­plaints about the loss of sub­sidy, ESF man­age­ment cannot be too un­happy. As the pub­lic sub­sidy is phased out, the gov­ern­ment can no longer in­ter­fere in its oper­a­tions and longterm plan­ning while its schools are free to charge what­ever the mar­ket will bear. Given the ESF’s ex­cel­lent aca­demic rep­u­ta­tion, many of its schools have long wait­ing lists. In­deed, if the ESF had not been so suc­cess­ful or could not sur­vive on its own, the gov­ern­ment would have had a much tougher time cut­ting ties.

The real losers are those fam­i­lies whose chil­dren cannot eas­ily ad­just to lo­cal schools, yet will be un­able to af­ford the fees with­out sub­sidy. But there may not be too many of them any­way. While the ESF has 17,500 stu­dents from more than 60 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties at its 22 schools, 70 per­cent of them have par­ents who are per­ma­nent res­i­dents of Hong Kong. In other words, they are mostly lo­cals. Pre­sum­ably, a fair num­ber of them could at­tend lo­cal schools; their par­ents chose not to do so, and in­stead sent them to ESF schools.

That has been one of the ar­gu­ments the gov­ern­ment has used to de­fend phas­ing out the re­main­ing 22 per­cent sub­sidy, over a pe­riod of 13 years start­ing from last year. Why should lo­cal fam­i­lies be sub­si­dized for send­ing their chil­dren to what are

Most de­vel­oped economies have strong sec­ond-language train­ing pro­grams to help in­te­grate such stu­dents or im­mi­grants into their pub­lic school systems. Hong Kong needs to do the same.

es­sen­tially in­ter­na­tional schools when lo­cal ones are al­ready free?

That is a strong ar­gu­ment, or would have been one, if all or most schools in Hong Kong are pub­lic or gov­ern­ment schools. But since the 1990s and es­pe­cially af­ter 1997, most top-tier or so-called elite lo­cal schools have switched to what is called the Di­rect Sub­sidy Scheme. So while they re­ceive sub­stan­tial pub­lic sub­si­dies, they make up for the rest by charg­ing fees, which are of­ten quite high. They also en­joy much greater au­ton­omy from the gov­ern­ment in the way they op­er­ate. ESF schools then sound a lot like those other di­rect sub­sidy schools.

The gov­ern­ment has an an­swer for that, too. Di­rect sub­sidy schools may be more in­de­pen­dent than gov­ern­ment and other aided schools but in the end they all have to fol­low lo­cal cur­ricu­lums with the goal of grad­u­at­ing stu­dents af­ter tak­ing cer­ti­fied pub­lic ex­ams. ESF schools could qual­ify for di­rect sub­sidy if they did that too. But ob­vi­ously, their rai­son d’etre is to fol­low the Bri­tish school cur­ricu­lum, and more re­cently, the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate (IB) as well. If the gov­ern­ment should sub­si­dize the ESF, why not all the other in­ter­na­tional schools which fol­low their own na­tional cur­ricu­lums and/or IB, too?

Such ar­gu­ments have been go­ing back and forth for more than a decade wnow. At times, they be­came quite bit­ter, es­pe­cially af­ter for­mer ed­u­ca­tion chief Arthur Li Kwok-che­ung ap­plied high-pres­sure tac­tics to force the ESF to ac­cept re­duced sub­si­dies. The gov­ern­ment de­ci­sion to phase out the fi­nal 22 per­cent sub­si­dies, though, was made af­ter Li had al­ready left his post.

But the die is cast. While the ESF will go its own merry way, the gov­ern­ment needs to make up for the loss by de­vel­op­ing lo­cal school pro­grams for chil­dren of fam­i­lies who don’t have the same strong na­tive Chinese-language back­ground. Most de­vel­oped economies have strong sec­ond-language train­ing pro­grams to help in­te­grate such stu­dents or im­mi­grants into their pub­lic school systems. Hong Kong needs to do the same.

The au­thor is a vet­eran jour­nal­ist from Hong Kong.

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