In 2002 when speculation was rife that the government-funded Wah Yan College in Wan Chai would apply to join the Direct Subsidy Scheme, allowing it to collect its own fees in exchange for more control over the curriculum and admissions, the school was emphatic it had no such plans. Father Alfred Deignan, then regional superior of the Hong Kong mission of the Society of Jesus, which operates the college, said at the time: “We do not want our school to be mainly for the rich. We want our schools to be open to be of service to the poor. This is part of our spirit.”
Five years later, he and other members of the Jesuit Board of Education again dismissed the idea of joining the scheme. “The tendency will be for it to change to be strongly competitive with a strong emphasis on money and competition rather than on whole person and values education,” he wrote in a letter at the time.
Times have changed, however. Earlier this month, the school admitted it is considering the switch, drawing immediate criticism that it was turning its back on the Jesuit vision of championing the rights of the underprivileged.
The issues raised by Wah Yan’s apparent change of heart reflect a perennial dilemma in Hong Kong education. Since the introduction of education reform in 2000, more and more good schools have chosen to forgo some of their government funding in exchange for more autonomy. They complained that the reform measures led to wider disparities in student ability and made it harder for them to maintain the quality of their education.
St Paul’s Co-Educational College and Diocesan Boys’ School gave up their aided status to join the direct subsidy scheme, partly in an attempt to free themselves from the reform measures being imposed on the aided and government schools.
With reduced government funding, however, schools will have to charge fees, and the sum can be hefty. Diocesan and St Paul’s, for example, charge students HK$45,900 and HK$55,000 per year respectively, higher than the fees charged by local universities.
Critics say the trend would deprive students from less-well-off families access to quality education.
Direct subsidy scheme schools are required to set aside 10 per cent of their fee-generated income for fee remission and a scholarship scheme. Sponsoring bodies of prestigious schools that have joined the scheme also maintain that outstanding students from underprivileged families will not be denied entry to their schools.
But a 2010 report by the government auditors told a different story. It found that five schools had failed to set aside one-tenth of their tuition revenue for financial assistance schemes for needy students, as required by the government. Of the 18 schools allowed to raise fees that year, five were found not to have given parents the income and spending records for the previous year and a budget for the next year before applying for a fee increase.
Like Irish Jesuits in Hong Kong, who have been described as a “dying breed”, Wah Yan College, which boasts a long list of prominent alumni, is one of the few elite schools here that still keeps its aided status. As an admirer of the Jesuits’ education ideal of “men for others”, I hope the school and the Society of Jesus remember what Father Joe Howatson did in 1946, when he founded the shoeshine boys’ club at Wah Yan College for shoeshine boys and street children. The children were invited to attend school three nights a week, where they received simple schooling and moral instruction, played games and ate a substantial meal.
Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor