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ESF Subvention finally abolished (in 2029)

It has been apparent for at least 10 years that the government had no wish to continue subsidizing the ESF.  The real surprise is that it has taken so long to make this decision - and it will only start to take effect three years from now, with some subsidy remaining in place for another 13 years (until the last pupils admitted to ESF primary schools in August 2015 complete their studies).

The SCMP has two news stories and one opinion piece:

Decision to end ESF subsidy a lesson in Machiavellian ruthlessness

South China Morning Post | Saturday, 08 June, 2013 | Alex Lo

Shock and horror! Fees for schools under the English Schools Foundation from 2016 will be at least 23 per cent higher as the government phases out the public subsidy.

But you would expect that. The die was cast once the Education Bureau announced it would phase out the current subsidy. You want to know how much ESF parents will eventually have to pay? Just check out the fees of other international schools.

The decision to end the subsidy after freezing payment for a decade may go down in history as one of the most ruthless made by this administration. But before you pick up your pitchfork and bay for blood, it's not entirely the fault of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his education secretary, Eddie Ng Hak-kim. Of course it is their fault for allowing it to happen. But I am actually not sure they know what they are doing with the ESF in the sense they almost certainly did not come up with the policy decision - those immediately below Ng within the bureau did.

There is an almost Machiavellian elegance to the decision - if you discount its irresponsibility, unfairness and immorality. You can be sure our clueless Mr Ng would never come up with something so clever; this is reserved for the senior administrative officials within the bureau, not a few of whom - I bet - are, or were, ESF parents.

Let's see what this decision really means. Taxpayers' money will be saved. The ESF is certain to prosper, as it will be able to charge high fees and million-dollar debentures on a par with other international schools. The government can claim it is helping to boost international school places without lifting a finger. It is also a populist decision as many local families resent the real or perceived special treatment given to the ESF as an old colonial institution.

But it is never explained why it is no longer the government's responsibility to support affordable education for non-Chinese-speaking children of residents or permanent residents. Nor is it clear why local families should be left to their own devices once they leave the local system and join the international school sector.

But the reality is that these families are on their own unless they can pay the high school fees.

The government’s official reason for ending the subvention is that it "flies in the face of the government's policy of not providing recurrent subsidy to schools mainly running non-local curriculum."

It’s the word “mainly” that appears to be the crucial one.  Schools operating under the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) are allowed to have 49% of their students in an “international” stream that leads to qualifications such as IGCSE and IB Diploma, but must have 51% studying for local exams.

It would be a huge change to the ESF to be able to satisfy the DSS rules, and so the ESF Board has accepted the government decision but they have arranged meetings with parents to get their views.  Expect these meetings to be lively, and ESF management will be heavily criticized, but current parents are not the ones who will lose the most from this decision, and it’s not possible to consult with parents of future ESF students.

On Friday, the HK Standard quoted Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim on the lack of international school places, saying that “international schools [should] consider devising an allocation mechanism such as a certain proportion of places being earmarked for children whose parents are recruited or relocated from outside Hong Kong."  So it seems clear the government wants the ESF to operate as an international school, offering priority to expats - and there is no doubt that the ESF can be successful operating in that way.

The losers here are local parents who can’t afford higher school fees, but the government doesn’t care about them.


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Michael Tomkins

Rest assured, this is having a negative impact on Hong Kong's international city status already.

My wife and I, until this situation came to a head, were making plans to move to Hong Kong; I am right-to-land eligible through birth, my right-of-abode having lapsed due to being overseas for too long.

This situation, however, was of grave concern to us. Our four-year-old son does not speak Cantonese, and although my wife and I were learning to speak it ourselves and fully planned to have him receive lessons too, neither of us is at the point where we could give him enough of a grounding to be able to learn and make friends on arrival. I'm sure he would've been able to pick it up over time, given the strong aptitude for languages he already shows, but while he did so it would have negatively impacted his ability to learn and make friends in a non-English speaking school. That would likely have had long-term implications we couldn't foresee.

So it was an English-language school for him or nothing, at least to start off with, and realistically that meant ESF. The other options available were simply out of our initial budget, or had little to no guarantee of his acceptance.

Could we afford the higher ESF rates? Most likely, yes, for one child. Are we willing to risk later finding out that the rates were jacked up beyond what we could afford, or that we had another child and were unable to afford the higher rates for two kids? Not a chance.

And so, our plans have been put on (likely permanent) hiatus, due to the government's wholly irresponsible and frankly unjustifiable decision that children's right to affordable education is not basic and fundamental. Thanks to a petty game of chicken between the government and the ESF leadership, Hong Kong's status as a supposed international city has been badly damaged -- it has shown itself to be merely a Chinese city that happens to have a fair few foreigners in it by an accident of history, and not a real world-class city.

I am ashamed of Hong Kong, and that is not a sentence I use lightly -- I am usually the first to champion its merits, but withholding the right to an affordable education from any segment of the population overrides anything else. Those on both sides of the aisle who through their action or inaction are responsible for these events should equally hang their heads in shame.

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