16 February 2019
Hong Kong parents find it quite difficult to get their kids into international schools. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong parents find it quite difficult to get their kids into international schools. Photo: HKEJ

Why Hong Kong finds it hard to recruit international talent

Parents have been scrambling to secure school places for their kids only to find that students have been on an extended summer holiday because of the pro-democracy protests.

Ironic perhaps, but finding a suitable school for their kids has always been a major preoccupation of parents in Hong Kong. 

We are officially an international city where East meets West, a metropolis where people speaking three different dialects (English, Cantonese and Putonghua) have always been fighting for tight spots in top schools.

For many expatriates, Hong Kong is a paradise except for a couple of things: air pollution seems getting worse, and it’s quite difficult to get kids into international schools. Unfortunately, there’s no solution in sight for these two festering issues.

Expatriates are likely to think twice about moving to a city where they are offered better pay (with more work hours) but probably a smaller home. While mainlanders are flocking to Hong Kong for a better life, it is less likely for Hong Kong people living overseas to return to the city.

My buddy in Toronto is one such example. Like me, he works from home. He has two kids and a 3,000 square foot house in Richmond Hill.

In the past 20 years, I visited him six times and he came back to the city at least three times.

Knowing that his rich uncle recently returned to Zhongshan for home hunting, I asked if he would like to come back. He replied, “I can’t afford it.”

So true! Living in Hong Kong is already expensive, and sending kids to an international school is only for the rich.

In the academic year 2011-2012, some 37,000 students were enrolled in international primary and secondary schools. There were 57,000 babies born last year and 95,400 in 2012, the Year of the Dragon.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chief economist David O’Rear once told legislators that the problem stemmed from the fact that local families preferred international schools to local institutions as the former are thought to have better standards.

“The shortfall in international school places could not be resolved at the root until improvements were made to the local education system,” he said.

According to former Morgan Stanley star property analyst Peter Churchouse, it’s difficult to recruit overseas talent simply because expatriates cannot find school places for their kids.

As a result, Hong Kong is losing out to places like Singapore. “The various chambers have been telling the government about this problem for years, but progress in releasing land to allow for the expansion of international schools to meet the obvious demand has been moving at a snail’s pace,” Churchouse said.

Just recently, it was reported that some international schools in the city have been charging kindergarten registration fees up to 90 times higher than the official ceiling. The German Swiss International School levied the highest registration fee at HK$3,700 this school year, compared with the standard fee of HK$40.

Unsurprisingly, education remains a hot theme in the capital markets. Nord Anglia Education, which just opened its Hong Kong branch this year, saw its share price rise 40 percent since its trading debut on the New York Stock Exchange in March. There is talk that Nord Anglia might spin off its local operation.

Even miscellaneous classes for kids — to give them a well-rounded upbringing and keep them busy when there’s no school — cost way too high. The SDM Jazz and Ballet Academie, for example, is charging HK$9,000 for a Royal Academy of Dance certificate for kids.

So it’s not just finding quality schools for kids of expatriates that’s difficult; it’s the cost that’s become quite prohibitive.

In fact, the cost of raising a kid in Hong Kong has skyrocketed to HK$8 million from about HK$4 million in the last decade.

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The cost of education is a heavy burden for most middle class families. Photo: HKEJ

Only in Hong Kong. Students do their homework while participating in the pro-democracy protests. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer

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