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Opinion: Can ESF Justify its School Fees Increase?

By Contributed content 18 April 2016
Ruth Benny

Ruth Benny

  In light of recent rises in Hong Kong school fees, complaints about the system and the problems it encounters have been the talk of the town. We ask education expert, Hong Kong resident, and founder of education consultancy, Top Schools, Ruth Benny, exactly what these rises mean, why they have been implemented, and if they are really necessary. The recent move by the English Schools Foundation (ESF) to increase its fees by as much as 28% for the 2016 - 17 school year is fair, reasonable, and exactly as expected. As Melody Chan, a spokesperson for ESF, declared in a statement to Top Schools, “The new, non-subvented ESF fees continue to be lower than most of the other international schools in Hong Kong, and ESF does not want to lose any students.” Parent groups, however, are justifiably concerned about the revised fee structure, which came nearly three years after ESF’s announcement of a phase-out of its much-lauded government subvention. Hong Kong is an expensive place to raise a family. Sending children to private schools requires a substantial financial commitment, and many parents feel the city lacks meaningful choice outside of predominantly Cantonese-speaking local schools and elite international campuses. Jennifer, an ESF parent, no longer sees the same value in the ESF system in comparison to what leading international schools can offer. "The extra fees are not insignificant,” says Jennifer. “For two kids, it will easily equate to an extra $6,000 to 8,000 per month for what feels like a large comprehensive (school) in the UK. The removal of the subvention (just in time for my eldest to start school) is a real dampener on what, to be frank, would've otherwise been a no-brainer,” she says. In July 2013, ESF administrators accepted a government proposal to terminate its long-standing subvention, which has, until now, kept the costs of attending an ESF school desirable by Hong Kong standards. From August 2016, however, Year 1 ESF students will pay an additional HK$17,000-18,000 per year to cover the loss of the subvention.

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ESF’s reputation for providing high-quality education has proven hugely popular among parents looking for reliable English-medium schools without the prohibitive price tag. Consequently, competition for placements within this attractive middle ground has remained fierce. Yet parents such as Janet, who has one child in an ESF secondary school, feel that some of this competitive edge is now lost. “We chose ESF because that's what we could afford, and it's people like us who'll be affected in future years. If they close the gap, people will go to schools with lovely facilities and smaller classes." ESF said it has taken careful account of the impact the increase will have on parents, but is adamant that it was an unavoidable move. “The fee increase has been kept to the minimum level necessary to meet our rising costs, and we are working to a ‘best value model’, which ensures the most efficient use of our resources,” says Melody Chan. “Deepening partnership with parents is one of our important strategic goals under the new ESF Strategic Plan, as we believe this is most beneficial to our students’ learning,” she adds. [caption id="attachment_53018" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 2 ESF tuition fees by year (HK$)[/caption] ESF appears to be prioritising the allocation of its resources into pedagogy rather than flashy facilities and small classes favoured by top international schools. “We are conscious that smaller class sizes would result in higher fees,” says Ms Chan. “The most important ingredient in securing effectiveness in the classroom is the quality of the teacher. ESF attracts the best teachers in the world. Facilities is a factor to consider, but of course it is what happens in those facilities that matters.” It is important to remember that families of existing ESF students are protected from the changes (if not the political debate). ESF is also not alone in raising fees; international schools across the SAR are notorious for regularly springing fee increases upon unsuspecting parents. It shouldn’t be overlooked that the ESF increases were publicly foreshadowed years in advance. Rather than pushing back against an anticipated reality, we should instead look forward to the many potentially positive outcomes made possible by this boost in revenue. Our ESF system has, to this point, operated a unique subvented model that Hong Kong was lucky to enjoy for 40+ years, yet still offering tuition fees below other international schools. ESF has admirably served Hong Kong’s diverse educational needs for nearly 50 years and will continue to do so. What do you think? Have your say in the comment box below. If choosing a school for your child seems like an impossible task, Top Schools can help provide you with up-to-date information, thorough research, and advice from schools, parents, and students in just one click. Visit their website for more information. 
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