Diminishing diversity - the changing faces of Hong Kong International Schools

Updated: Apr 21

None of us could have predicted how "unusual" a year 2020 would turn out to be. One of the apparent side effects of this year's unusual events is that more places are available in Hong Kong's international schools. Why? People say they have heard more expats have left Hong Kong and therefore more places are available.

We do not agree.

Who are the Expats?

In reality, the number of expats in Hong Kong is very small. And the number of expats able to afford high international school fees is tiny. According to the 2016 census, about 690,000 foreigners and non-Hong Kong Chinese live in the Special Administrative Region, accounting for about 9.5% of the population. However, the data is very, very skewed and unhelpful for the purpose of ascertaining the availability of spaces in international schools. This number accounts for all domestic helpers as well as low income ethnic minorities. It also does not account for all the HK Chinese and Mainland Chinese with additional passports.

Expats are not Important

Our international schools are NOT populated by expats. Of almost 38,000 children in international school, most are Chinese children with additional passports, or increasingly Chinese children without additional passports. And, with the growing number of private schools with no preference for international or local children, the diversity is diminishing.

Furthermore, the true international schools with mandated quotas to accept a certain number of children with foreign passports, are not all able to meet this quota - sometimes as high as 85 - 90% - and are discussing with the Education Bureau to have it lowered.

Every year, most international schools do see some churn - usually between 5 - 15% of children leave - and those places need to be refilled. It may be true that we have seen more Western expats, typically on high salaries in the financial and aviation sectors, leave Hong Kong this year as compared to a typical year. Yet, any vacancies created in the top schools are not difficult to fill. They will usually have many children waiting for places; many of these have already applied years ago and will be offered seats subject to meeting the entry requirements. These are not typically expat children.

Demographics are changing

The low numbers of "traditional" expats, coupled with increasing demand from local parents is not new. Local Chinese families began considering international schools in 2003 when SARS indirectly created a lot of vacancies by fleeing expats (when we had far fewer international schools). Another catalyst was the introduction of Moral and national education (MNE) in local schools in 2012. And, in 2020, we have another new wave of interest from families keen to leave local schools for various reasons.

On the other hand, the expats that remain in Hong Kong - and a steady flow of those that continue to come in and out - are increasingly unable to afford the high fees of the top international schools. These are expats, but not in the traditional sense. We have seen the steep rise in numbers of parents from South Asia, particularly India, as well as other parts of Asia working in middle management or start ups without hefty expat packages. For many of these families, their employers - unfortunately - do not cover school fees and so they choose free local schools or lower end private schools. This year, school closures and job losses/pay cuts have led some parents to withdraw their children from international and private schools when they preferred not to, or simply could not afford to, pay fees. Now that the schools are open again, many are still choosing local school or homeschooling.

So, it does mean that schools do have places for good fit students, regardless of their passport.

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