The Rise and Rise of School Fees

If you want to raise the ire of Hong Kong parents, increase their children’s school fees. Here’s a sample of the latest outrage on the popular Facebook group ‘Hong Kong Schools’:

“These fees for this age are ridiculous!”

“In 2 years time it’ll be 200k just to attend their kindy.”

“Speechless. There is no way a kindergarten or a parent can justify these amounts.”

“I can’t even look! It hurts my eyes! The school fees here are ridiculously astronomical.

It’s just not fair.”

“The education system here is broken.”

“This is depressing. I wonder how far and up it can all go.”

“Day. Light. Robbery.”

Despite near-free access to a solid government education system, most expatriate parents, and a rapidly growing number of local families, continue to opt for the prestige and pedagogy of international schools. Elongated waiting lists at trilingual play-based kindergartens, and the well-publicised construction of shiny new primary and secondary campuses, are testament to an unbridled social swing towards ‘do-what-it- takes’ education planning. The reality is that private schools in Hong Kong will continue to increase fees by the current estimate of 6–10% each year as long as the appetite remains for high-end schooling. Hong Kong is a city run on big finance, served by domestic help and low tax rates. The market will always feed the need to keep up.

If families cannot afford the hefty school fees, debentures and capital levies, alternatives include:

  1. Opting for a less known, more affordable school;

  2. Moving off Hong Kong Island out to Kowloon or the New Territories;

  3. Keeping the little ones at home for another year;

  4. Considering boarding school;

  5. Choosing a local school. The kids learn Cantonese and you’ll save a bomb.

Elsewhere in the world, it is not the responsibility of government to subsidise international school fees with taxpayer dollars. Hong Kong is already grossly unequal

in terms of income disparity and living conditions. Education policy should strive to overcome economic disadvantage, not perpetuate the wealth divide by propping up attractive expat packages and providing concessions for schools who charge high fees to a long list of those willing to pay them. It’s true that rents are increasing, while salaries have largely stagnated across most sectors, but the Education Bureau (EDB) is not immune to this tricky economic climate. And their mandate is not to protect the interests of expatriate families and wealthy locals who seek an international school environment for their children.

One of countless aggrieved parents (who also happens to be a teacher) took to social media recently to bemoan her school’s 6% fee increase. “Many of us have gotten together and written to the school to express our disappointment. There needs to be regulation around this. After all, there are regulations in other industries; Hong Kong schools shouldn’t be excluded, especially since they hold our deposits and debentures. They seem to have their own banking system. There isn’t a ceiling. That’s the most concerning thing.”


Tuition fee increase (%) for 2018/19


Some parents are more fatalistic about the city they live in.“It’s Hong Kong,” says a parent who wishes to remain anonymous. “Wages have stagnated for 20 years in nominal and real terms, yet property and services have quadrupled or quintupled. But people are still moving to HK in droves, from China and overseas. So obviously the extravagant cost isn’t high enough as a deterrent against whatever benefits people have from living here. This city is pure capitalism at work; the results are not always very pretty.”

Some parents wonder why the government does not simply mandate that only foreign passport holders can attend international schools, such as in Singapore, which has some success with the policy – at least in terms of bolstering support for the local system. Hong Kong’s international schools welcome both local and foreign children, and some schools are made up of predominantly local children holding an additional foreign passport.

Top Schools consultant Nicola Lewis says, “Perhaps the EDB should note the increase in demand for international school places is not from expats – the number of which is pretty stable – but from parents disgruntled by local school offerings. If the local system was overhauled, there would be less demand for international schools and this may influence their prices.”

Another interesting idea being floated in parent circles is that debentures and capital levies be stripped back to ease the burden of the increased fees. It’s a valid point, and one that could address the angry public sentiment at a time when wages have essentially flatlined and, for many families, the outgoings have started to exceed the incomings.

“Our family hit that wall last year,” says former Hong Kong-based parent Caryn. “We are back in the States now.”

This article first appeared in Playtimes, May 2017.


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