How ‘international’ are Hong Kong’s international schools?

Hong Kong’s more than 50 international schools are proving increasingly popular with local and PRC families who recognise the advantages of an English-medium learning environment, progressive teaching styles, and a cosmopolitan cohort. But how ‘international’ is an international school in Hong Kong if the majority of students are Chinese?

Partly in response to pressure from the international business community, in particular the American and British Chambers of Commerce, the Hong Kong government issued more than 4000 extra spaces in international schools between the 2011/2012 and 2016/2017 school years. The arrangement stipulates, however, that 50–90 per cent of students enrolled in these newer international schools in Hong Kong must be foreign passport holders. This is further complicated by whether such schools choose to define PRC students as ‘local’ or ‘non-local’. Speculation abounds that the government failed to properly read the situation and that schools are now scrambling to meet these unrealistic quotas, or at least might scramble in the near future.

“We are committed to developing a vibrant international school sector, mainly to meet the demand for school places from overseas families living in Hong Kong and families coming to Hong Kong for work or investment,” said Eunice Fung of the Education Bureau’s (EDB) Infrastructure and Research Support Division in a statement to Top Schools.

The EDB conducted a consultancy study in 2012, which led to the launch of School Allocation Exercises (SAE) in 2012 and 2014. Five vacant school premises and three ‘greenfield’ sites were subsequently set aside to fill the 4200 prospective places in purpose-built, fledgling international schools. There was a clear mandate from the government to accommodate the needs of the expatriate population.

“Under the prevailing policy, international schools (without boarding facilities) receiving government assistance in the form of vacant school premises or greenfield sites are required to allocate at least 70 per cent of the school places to target students who hold passports other than the HKSAR Passport or the British National (Overseas) Passport,” said Ms Fung.

Ms Fung also acknowledged that favourable consideration may be given to proposals that accepted a higher proportion of target students. “All of the five successful applicants for the two premises and three sites in the SAE 2014 have committed to allocate 80 per cent or more of the school places to non-local students.” That’s a significant amount of non-Chinese students to find.

Many schools are understandably dubious about the quota system. Tisha Del Rosario, Admissions Co-ordinator at The Harbour School, one of the successful applicant schools in this recent round of allocations, feels the new quota guidelines are tricky to meet. “The biggest problem with the quota system is that some students have dual passports, which makes it difficult to know how to meet the intended goals of the quota. It is important for schools to be committed to creating an international space rather than just filling seats. We do have an increased number of local families applying and are having to put them in a waiting pool, even though we still have places available.”

A principal of an international school in the New Territories, agrees the system is problematic. “We can never get a clear answer from them [the EDB]. There is a lot of demand across the year levels and we do want more international families. [But] we have a lot of local and few true international families at our school.” Chinese International School also reported an increase in applications from PRC families and fewer traditional expat families.

Other international schools appear less concerned about the impact of the quota system – at least for now. “We are very mindful of the restriction, but it’s a challenge for enrolment predictions,” said Mary Ewing, Admissions Director at the upcoming American School Hong Kong, due to open in September 2016. “We would like to develop and maintain a truly international environment and there has been an increase in overseas interest.”

The question remains whether or not the quota system is able to address its lofty goals. One thing for certain is that there is a finite number of truly ‘non-local’ students in Hong Kong. Unless Hong Kong multinationals turn back the clock and begin offering generous relocation allowances – or, better yet, school fees are miraculously reduced – the reality is that the majority of places in new or existing internationals schools will be filled by aspirational Cantonese and Mainland families.

The EDB has been running a second consultancy study since October 2014 to review the international school sector here in more detail. The study is scheduled to finish in mid-2016 (any day now) and its results are sure to be a talking point in education circles across the city.

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