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HK: Ombudsman investigates fee increases

The Hong Kong Office of the Ombudsman is investigating whether school fee revisions have followed the proper procedures amid concerns that the education bureau’s approval mechanism is lax and lacks transparency.

Far from the bright lights, Hong Kong's ombudsman is questioning the hike in school fees. Photo: Flickr/ Barbara Willi

If a school charges HKD $138,481 for tuition, it can still receive a full government subsidy

According to reports, some are now charging more than HKD $240,000 (USD $30,770) per year, with an average increase of 4.8%.

The biggest group of international schools, with 22 branches in Hong Kong, English Schools Foundation is proposing to increase fees by more than 20%.

“The increase of tuition fee is unpredictable, it may cause financial pressure for parents”

The Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said over 50 international schools, 147 private schools, and all Direct Subsidy Scheme schools were given approval to raise their fees.

“The Education Bureau had an evaluation system for fee increase applications. However, those schools can often easily obtain the approval,” she said in a press conference.

The Ombudsman has initiated a direct investigation into the Education Bureau’s criteria and procedures for approving applications for school fee revision, and the regulatory system for school fees collected by schools.

According to South China Morning Post, 42 DSS schools have applied to adjust their fees by up to 50%.

Starting from 2018-19 school year, the ESF primary school plans to raise fees from HK$89,200 (USD$ 11,436) to HK$111,200 (USD$ 14,256), a 24.7% increase.

For its private international schools, Discovery College and Renaissance College, the increases are 6.1% and 5.9% respectively.

Belinda Greer, CEO of ESF told The PIE News the proposed adjustment is due to the loss of HK$283m (US$36.3m) government annual subsidy on primary years 1 to 3, started from 2016 until 2028. Thus, the percentage increase in primary school is relatively higher.

“The average fee increase of 4.8% per cent is at the minimum level necessary to meet our rising costs whilst maintaining the quality of education, we are managing to keep our fees at a level below many of our competitors,” she said.

“We are very concerned about whether the [bureau] has a sufficiently strict mechanism”

Still, the Ombudsman said that some schools were given too much liberty to unreasonably raise fees year after year, which would bring about a heavy financial burden for parents.

Schools under DSS, including ESF, are allowed to have greater flexibility in various areas including resources deployment, curriculum design and student admission.

The amount of subsidy is calculated based on the average unit cost of a school place. From 1991 to 2000, a DSS schools could obtain a full subsidy from the government if their fees are less than two-thirds of the average unit cost.

However, The Education Bureau has relaxed restrictions in order to attract more public schools to DSS.

This means if the school is charging HKD $138,481 (USD $17,754) for tuition fees, it can still receive a full subsidy.

Local media commentators said schools are “naturally willing” to charge higher fees if they can still receive the benefits.

“We are very concerned about whether the [bureau] has a sufficiently strict mechanism for approving applications for school fee revisions,” the Ombudsman said.

Chow King-lun, Convener of the Hong Kong Parent League suggested that DSS, private and international schools should provide an estimation of fee increase to parents for the coming six years.

“The increase of tuition fee is unpredictable, sometimes it may cause financial pressure to parents for sudden increase,” he said.

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