Popping The Question

Our Education Minister Eddie Ng is coming close to a decision on what to do about the subvention at present enjoyed by the English Schools Foundation. It is always a good thing when a Minister is prepared to make a decision. Unfortunately it looks as though in this case Ng is on the verge of making the wrong one.

How can we help him turn back from the precipice and follow the path of wisdom and enlightenment?

In fairness it should be said that he may not have been helped to reach the right decision by some of the arguments advanced in favour of the subvention. And I think we can take it as read that his present crop of colleagues in the Education Bureau have been urging him to scrap it without presenting all sides of the argument. They, like their predecessors, hate all international schools in general and the ESF in particular with a fervour reminiscent of the cultural revolution.

Those in favour of the subvention continuing tend to put forward arguments along the lines of "Hong Kong needs expats, there should be subsidised education for their children, the ESF has a long history of providing quality education, anyway many of the children are local."

All these points have some validity but they can be overstated. Moreover they miss the main point.

Those who want to scrap the subvention take the line that "The ESF schools are to all intents and purposes like international ones, we do not subsidise these so to provide a level playing field we should not help the ESF with recurrent costs either."

Now, there was a time when the ESF enjoyed an unfair advantage in funding vis-a-vis local schools. In those days – and I am talking of several decades ago -- the Government covered the full costs of ESF schools but the classes were smaller and the facilities of a higher standard. That meant the subsidy per pupil was considerably greater.

This injustice was later corrected and for a long time the subsidy per place for ESF schools was fixed at the same as the cost of educating a local child in a local school. This was simple and fair, and meant parents had to pay fees to cover the extra cost arising from smaller classes and better facilities.

But about a decade ago, this formula was abandoned on the grounds of alleged mismanagement of ESF finances, and the subvention was frozen. The fact that the cost of this mismanagement, if any, was borne entirely by the parents through higher fees (because the public subsidy element was fixed) did not seem to have entered the argument.

Be that as it may, that is where we are now. Proponents are saying the ESF finances have been sorted out, the equal subsidy formula should be resurrected and the subvention increased accordingly, while opponents stand pat on the "level playing field for international schools" argument.

The issue should really come down to one of fairness. The question that the community should be asking, the question that the Minister needs to ask himself, is: what is fair in all the circumstances.

All matters concerning education should start with what is best for the children, not the institutions. And matters concerning school fees should heave closely to what is fair for the parents.

Most children would do better to study in a local school predominantly in Cantonese but with some in an English medium stream. The parents of most of those children are permanent residents whether of Chinese or minority (including Caucasian) origin, and it is reasonable for all or most of the costs to be borne by the public purse though a majority of the parents will probably not be taxpayers simply because most Hong Kong employees fall outside the tax net.

A significant number of children would do better to study in an international or ESF school in English and/or their mother tongue. Many of their parents also are permanent residents, and of both Chinese and minority origin, and a majority will be taxpayers.

So here is my question for Eddie: exactly what is the justification for not subsidising the cost of these children’s education, at least to a level equivalent to the cost of educating a local child in a local school?

In matters of public policy we are, or should be, concerned with what is fair. What is fair for the permanent resident parents of children studying in international and ESF schools?