Hong Kong’s international and private schools will have to justify all extra charges they impose on students and address the concerns of parents by next month, as part of new requirements set by the Education Bureau.
The bureau will look closely at how much parents are asked to pay at the schools, and for what reasons, following criticism by the city’s ombudsman.
The city has about 160 private schools, including more than 50 international schools. Until now, they only needed to seek the bureau’s approval for charging tuition fees.
But many schools impose various additional fees, amounting to millions of Hong Kong dollars a year in total from each student. These fees have long allowed the schools to raise extra income, and parents who are willing to fork out more for optional charges gained priority for their children’s admission.
Some parents have long been unhappy about these charges, but the schools were left to run their affairs as they wished.
Earlier this year, the city’s ombudsman accused education authorities of failing to keep an eye on the way the schools charged additional fees through refundable or non-refundable debentures, capital levies, nomination certificates and school construction charges.
In a letter the bureau sent on June 18 and seen by the Post, private and international schools have been instructed to submit their proposed charges by July 15 under a set of new transitional arrangements. All approvals will be valid for five years, until 2024/25, when more comprehensive regulations are expected to take effect.
Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen welcomed the move, calling it “groundbreaking”, and said the lack of scrutiny of extra charges had led to a situation in some schools where miscellaneous fees added up to much more than tuition.
Although he doubted whether some of the optional payments would be stopped or lowered, Ip said: “No matter whether the fees are refundable or not, they should be regulated [by the bureau].”
Latest figures from the bureau show that the median tuition fee for Hong Kong’s international schools at the secondary level was HK$163,100 (US$21,000) in the 2019/20 academic year. Other fees were extra.
A Post check of 25 international schools in the city found that mandatory capital levy charges ranged from about HK$10,000 to HK$60,000 annually, and were typically used for school development, including maintenance and purchasing new equipment.
Mandatory debentures – usually a one-off payment – ranged from HK$100,000 for each secondary school pupil at International College of Hong Kong to HK$630,000 at Hong Kong Academy.
Hong Kong International School had optional family debentures priced up to HK$3 million per student, which entitled a child to get priority during enrolment, although admission is not guaranteed.
At the Independent Schools Foundation Academy, parents may choose between paying HK$7 million for a transferable but non-refundable capital note with admission priority for the child, or a non-refundable and non-transferable capital levy of HK$40,000 per year for each student under its capital contribution scheme.
The transferable note may be sold to other parents three months after a child is no longer a student there.
Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung told a Legislative Council panel meeting this month that changes were being introduced, following the ombudsman’s call for a comprehensive regulation of the various miscellaneous charges.
Schools must list all charges they intend to collect, including optional charges, and those refundable or transferable.
They must also explain the specific purpose of each charge, how the amount was calculated, and whether parents or other stakeholders were consulted in advance.
“We understand that these charges have become a source of funding for various activities of private schools and it is not possible to stop their collection pending the establishment of a comprehensive approval mechanism,” the letter said.
“As such, we have developed a transitional arrangement whereby approval will be granted on the basis of justifications given by individual schools.”
Education officials met representatives of the schools on Tuesday to address their concerns.
A source present at the meeting said some international schools felt the new requirements posed additional difficulty in what had been a difficult year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 led all schools to suspend face-to-face classes for four months, with students returning only from late May. Many international and private schools also froze their tuition fees for the 2020/21 school year, to ease the burden on parents.
The Post asked questions to six international schools – including the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and Hong Kong International School – on the additional fees they charged, but all of them either declined to comment or did not reply.
A bureau spokesman said the authorities would maintain contact with the sector and take into account the needs of private schools as well as stakeholders’ concerns while drawing up a more comprehensive regulation.
Ruth Benny, founder of private schools consultancy Top Schools, said parents welcomed the bureau’s action on miscellaneous fees.
She hoped schools would increase transparency and consult parents on the matter, noting that many had already issued demands for various payments.
“We hope the consultations with parents will be more thorough,” Benny said.
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