The Education Bureau (EDB) has come in for scathing criticism from the government watchdog over the agency’s lapses in relation to oversight of fees charged by kindergartens for admission applications.
In a report released Monday, the Office of the Ombudsman said it found that several kindergartens were charging way above the government prescribed ceiling with respect to application fees.
In one case, a preschool was charging nearly 93 times the official limit of HK$40 for an application form, the watchdog said, accusing the EDB of failing to exercise proper control over the institutions.
Ombudsman Connie Lau Yiu-hing said the EDB doesn’t seem to have any specific criteria when it comes to approval of kindergartens’ application fees.
The bureau doesn’t require kindergartens to provide actual and estimated expenditure, resulting in a failure to check whether there are unnecessary or dubious items in the calculation of application fees, she said.
The EDB is supposed to act as a gatekeeper and protect the interests of parents, but the agency has fallen short in fulfilling the duty, Lau said, describing the non-refundable application fees charged by some kindergartens as “unbelievable”.
The criticism came as an investigation found that kindergartens were charging all sorts of amounts for the application forms, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
Under guidelines set by the EDB in 2014, the application fee should not exceed HK$40. Any amount higher than that would require specific approval from the bureau.
But the Ombudsman found that 36 kindergartens were being allowed to charge more than the official ceiling even though the schools failed to provide details of how the received fees were used for its expenditure.
Thirty out of the 36 kindergartens that were charging higher amounts were international schools, with their application fees ranging from HK$300 to as high as HK$3,700, or 92.5 times that of the ceiling set by the EDB.
The rest were local ones that charged no more than HK$90 on average, according to findings of the Ombudsman.
The top three overcharging kindergartens for 2016/2017 school year are German Swiss International School (HK$3,700), Hong Kong Academy (HK$3,000), and Singapore International School (HK$3,000), EDB data showed.
Inquiries made by HKEJ to the three schools as to how they used the fee income did not elicit any response.
Lau said the EDB should have questioned the overcharging kindergartens for their expense items to see if they tried to profit from the fees.
If there is no satisfactory explanation, the schools should be asked to refund the excess fee to the parents, she said.
The Ombudsman’s report criticized the EDB for not being proactive in dealing with overcharging kindergartens, despite receiving complaints from parents.
Schools were making use of a loophole in the regulations under which kindergartens only need to win approval of their application fees from the EDB once instead of every year.
To address the problem, the Ombudsman urged the bureau to form specific working guidelines regarding approval of application fees charged by kindergartens as soon as possible.
Also, the EDB should ask kindergartens to give expense item details on their budget so as to prevent unreasonable charges, it said.
Lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung said some kindergartens are overcharging because they know parents are willing to fork out any amount in order to secure admissions for their kids in prestigious schools.
The schools are taking advantage of the mindset of the parents and profiting from it, he said.
Responding to the Ombudsman’s report, the EBD said it will review its current approval practice of application fees, enhance monitoring measures and study how to follow up on suggestions from the watchdog.
However, it stressed that it will be hard to use a single standard when approving the fees.
[Chinese version 中文版]
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