Object Lesson

The impoverishment of Hong Kong’s middle class came a step closer this month with the assistance of our ever helpful Education Bureau.

The English Schools Foundation announced fee increases of up to 27.5 per cent had been approved by the government to take effect from the coming academic year. Year Two fees in the Foundation’s nine primary schools will now cost $106,500. Fees for Year One – which had a similar steep percentage rise last year – will be the same. In the years to come, increases on this scale will work their way through the whole school system until ESF fees at all levels will approach those charged by our international schools.

In the past, such an announcement would have evoked howls of protest from parents whose children attend ESF schools, all heaping blame on the Foundation. But now it is widely understood that the cause of these enormous increases is the progressive withdrawal of the annual subvention paid by the government.

Announcement of the subvention cancellation – phased over a number of years so as to "soften the blow" – is the enduring legacy of our previous education minister, Eddie Ng Hak Yim.

It is easy now to forget that at the time of the last chief executive election in 2012, all three candidates pledged in writing in this newspaper that if elected they would retain the subvention. All three may well have been sincere, but they were no match for the Taliban-esque fanaticism of the education bureaucrats.

When the ESF was first established it was basically to provide schooling for the children of expatriate civil servants. The government met the whole cost. This was manifestly unfair to local people, including civil servants, as ESF classes were smaller and the facilities in its schools were better, hence the subsidy per child was much higher than for local children. After many years of complaint, the subvention formula was changed so that the subsidy per child in an ESF school was pitched at the same level as the cost of educating a local child in a local school. The difference in costs was met by the introduction of fees. That made things fair, and there matters should have been allowed to rest.

But that is to reckon without the professional fury of some education bureaucrats who saw the popularity of all international schools, especially among local parents, as a standing indictment of the standard of education in local schools, for which they were directly responsible. Which of course it was. They reserved a dedicated corner of their hearts for their special hatred of the ESF, because it was similar in many respects to full international schools and even got government money to boot. They bided their time, and under a weak minister eventually got their way.

But their "success" completely overlooks the identity of the children now being educated in our international/ESF schools, and totally ignores Hong Kong’s overall interests. There are three categories of family: traditional expatriates, sent by their overseas employer to head up local operations; Hong Kong returnees from favoured emigration destinations such as Canada, Australia and USA; and local parents who want their children to have a top class international education.

These are precisely the people Hong Kong needs to attract and retain if our economy is to succeed and grow for the benefit of the whole community. But school fees and increases on this sort of scale seem designed to drive them away.

Let us take the case of a typical mid-career professional, salary $100,000 per month. Our property and rental prices are among the highest in the world so let’s assume rent of around $50,000, two children at ESF schools another $20,000, leaving at most $30,000 per month disposable income. After allowing for tax, a helper, maybe a second hand car (or taxis) what kind of middle class lifestyle is sustainable? The short answer is: less than the family would enjoy in many other countries where the parents’ skills are in high demand. Only when the nominal monthly income is significantly in excess of a hundred thousand would the overall package be attractive.

Is there no way back, or are we destined forever to drive away the very people essential for the future success of our economy? I think we can forget about restoring the subvention, because too many people would have to eat too many of their own words. But if we start by asking ourselves what would be fair, for someone who is from Hong Kong or has made his life here, is or has become a permanent resident and paid his taxes, then is it stretching things too far to suggest he should be given a measure of public support towards the cost of educating his children? Pitched, say, at a level equivalent to the cost of educating a local child at a local school?

Perhaps our Marxist theoreticians could give some advice on what happens to a community where the middle class become disaffected.