View from the Peak: Don’t pack the kids!

Waiting lists at Hong Kong’s international schools are only set to worsen writes Max Mack from the Island.
Due to the continuing strength of the Australian dollar, moving overseas to become an expat is less attractive than it was when the dollar traded at $0.70 to the USD.
I can understand that. It makes sense. Everything being equal, people would prefer to be paid in a stronger currency than a weaker one, and make more money in their home currency (AUD) terms. So with the Hong Kong dollar (HKD) being pegged to the frail USD, there is a significantly reduced attraction to foregoing an Australian wage in favour of a HKD income.
There is also the added risk and disincentive of having to service an AUD mortgage over an Australian property with a weaker HKD income.
So when I speak to relocation consultants (i.e., moving company staff), they should be telling me that immigration business is slow and that emigration is strong. In their parlance: “the containers are emptier coming than going!”
So why am I told the containers are emptier going than coming? It can only mean people are seeing the wonderful attraction of Hong Kong and either effectively managing, skilfully hedging, or simply overlooking, the aforementioned currency risks.
Of course, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought people were moving to Hong Kong for the clean air, spacious living, and fresh local food.
There appears to be a raft of professionals relocating to Hong Kong because the city now boasts another title: “Winner – Least worst economic prospects for 2012”.
So this is good for Hong Kong. It further boosts the local economy, and associated property rental prices. Let’s call this, with a straight face, self-fulfilling economic stimulation.
Now if you’re contemplating or preparing for your move to the Fragrant Harbour, I have some advice. Your move will be much smoother if you can at all facilitate being childless.
For those of you not currently childless, drastic measures may be required. “Now Johnny you be good for Grandma. Mummy and Daddy will be back in a few years!”
I am not writing to inform you of the inconvenience children can present living in Hong Kong, but rather the shortage of school places, particularly English-language based schools.
The problem has become so acute that executives are switching to Singapore instead of Hong Kong. In Singapore, the government insists local children go to local schools, leaving the international schools to educate non-Singaporean children.
For years Hong Kong and Singapore have wrestled competitively for the title of “Best City in Asia, Particularly When Viewed Economically From Afar”. The two cities meet this challenge in very different ways: Hong Kong with a Laissez-faire “free markets will spur superlative outperformance” approach, and Singapore with a paternalistic high-intervention approach.
However, it appears that the low-interference approach taken by the HK Education Department is coming up, well, a little uneducated.
I am reminded of the old statistician joke, that if you put a statistician’s head in the oven and his feet in the freezer, on average, he’ll feel fine.
International schools in Hong Kong are almost without exception oversubscribed and manage long waiting lists. They are at capacity and desperately need land to build classrooms and facilities to house more students. None but the wealthiest schools can afford to buy and develop land near where expatriates live.
But the Education Department, who doles out the land for schools, states that they are closing schools, and that these recently closed schools are available for recycling as an international school.
A closer look exposes the flaw in this position. It’s true some primary schools have been closed, but mostly in the New Territories, a minimum of seven train stops away from Central. Put another way, the New Territories, the area inconveniently located between Kowloon and Mainland China, is not as popular with expatriates as, say, Hong Kong Island or even Lantau Island. (The exception is the Sai Kung and Clearwater Bay areas to the far east of the New Territories.)
In other words, the government is offering old, closed primary schools in outlying areas to international schools needing to educate children living in inlaying areas.
On average, this situation is fine.
The solution to this issue lies beyond the Education Department, who merely manage the land and facilities they have. The government, who look at land allocation centrally, should examine and ensure that locality-appropriate land and development funding is available to all schools.
For example, there is a lot of development coinciding with the building of the Southern Island Line of the MTR, in areas like Aberdeen and ApLeiChau on the southern shore of Hong Kong Island. The government should ensure that there is appropriate land allocated for international education purposes in these new developments, because they sit in a crucial area between the underserved districts of PokFuLam and Repulse Bay.
The market can then work out which schools, whether primary or secondary, whether International Baccalaureate or A-levels or Australian curriculum (or another curricula) are taught.
This is an issue that is directly affecting Hong Kong’s regional competitiveness and the government should address it directly.
Until they do, if you are thinking of moving to Hong Kong, and thinking of bringing your children, I suggest you’ll need to start early in arranging their schooling. 

*Originally from Sydney, Max Mack is a long-time expat and banker currently living in Hong Kong. Contact the author at:
MaxmackHK@gmail.com

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