Generation 40s – 四十世代

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End of ESF as the affordable choice for Hong Kong’s middle class

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing says lack of government vision hastens its return to elite roots

Ever since British gunboats took on the overmatched Chinese navy in the name of “free trade” (then a euphemism for the right to peddle opium), Hong Kong has been a place of great paradoxes – a clash of East and West that ultimately became a triumph of accommodation, ingenuity and hard work.

The contradictions have only deepened and multiplied since the city’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty. Post 1997, Hong Kong inherited an English educational system, for example, the unique and exemplary aspect of which was the English Schools Foundation, now a group of 20 schools with a track record of excellence.

For years, the ESF provided a high-quality education not just to a revolving door of wealthy expats but also to a Chinese middle class.

Unfortunately, the ESF is a paradox with which the Hong Kong government can no longer live. As the blinkered official argument goes, the government subvention that has kept ESF fees significantly lower than those at the best international schools amounts to nothing less than an antiquated, unjustifiable subsidy for rich foreigners.

So the annual HK$283 million subvention will end in 2016 – and, in anticipation of that loss, the ESF has been raising fees and imposing capital levies willy-nilly for the past several years. Just this month it announced a non-refundable HK$38,000 charge, on top of tuition fees, for each new student starting next year. Financially strapped ESF parents are again up in arms, lashing out at new ESF head Belinda Greer, and pleading for relief. But the die is cast. It’s time to write the sad epitaph for the ESF as we have known it: once an affordable middle-class refuge for a top-notch English-medium education, it will henceforth be just another group of overpriced international schools catering to deep-pocketed expats and the local elite.

It’s too bad; it didn’t have to be this way. If the Education Bureau had demonstrated a little imagination, not to mention appreciation of Hong Kong’s paradoxical history, the ESF could have continued to serve the city well, playing a key role in an educational vision that is woefully lacking at this time.

Instead, authorities couldn’t stomach subsidising an institution rooted in the privilege and snobbery of Hong Kong’s colonial past. What they failed to acknowledge, however, is that the ESF cast off its upper-class snootiness years ago when many local families, dissatisfied with the beleaguered local educational system, took advantage of the government subvention and enrolled their children. Now, ironically, with that subvention disappearing, the ESF is free to return to form as a haughty educational playground for the elite.

But where do middle-class Chinese families who value a high-quality English-medium education go? And let’s not forget the many middle-class expats who also will find themselves at a loss.

Tuition at top-tier international schools that is comparable to the ESF in quality can top HK$200,000 a year, not including debentures, application fees, capital levies and other expenses. Only the rich can afford to go to these schools.

An ESF education, on the other hand – despite the recent rash of tuition hikes – still costs about half as much. Removal of the subvention, however, will signal the end of the unspoken social and economic contract that existed between the foundation and its host city, keeping costs reasonable.

Soon you can expect to see ESF fees, like those of its international school counterparts, soar into the stratosphere. Meanwhile, the city’s education policies lie scattered in incoherent pieces.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer based in Hong Kong