Runaway ESF inflation limits options for parents
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.