LCQ20: Application fees charged by kindergartens
The Office of The Ombudsman (the Office) pointed out in a Direct Investigation Report published in December last year that the application fees charged by some kindergartens had far exceeded the approved ceiling of $40 set by the Education Bureau (EDB) (above-the-ceiling application fees), and a kindergarten even charged an application fee as high as $3,700. The Office also pointed out that the EDB's regulation of the collection of above-the-ceiling application fees by kindergartens was very lax and the EDB had failed in its duty as a gatekeeper, as kindergartens were allowed to charge high application fees by exaggerating their expenses, and consistent criteria for vetting and approving such fees were lacking; there was a dire need to address the situation that the interests of parents were being ignored. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it knows the number of kindergartens charging above-the-ceiling application fees in each of the three school years from 2014 to 2017, as well as (i) the names of those kindergartens, (ii) the districts in which those kindergartens were located and (iii) the application fees charged by them (set out in descending order);
(2) given that kindergartens are required to seek prior approval of the EDB before charging above-the-ceiling application fees, whether the EDB has capped such above-the-ceiling application fees; if the EDB has not, whether the EDB will consider imposing such a cap so as to prevent some kindergartens from making profits from the admission procedure; if the EDB will not consider, of the reasons for that;
(3) as some parents have pointed out that some kindergartens have charged exorbitant application fees in an unrestrained manner because once kindergartens have obtained approval from the EDB to charge above-the-ceiling application fees, they are allowed to do so in each subsequent year and they are not required to submit any application again, whether the EDB will, in future, stipulate that such an approval is valid for one school year only; if the EDB will not, of the reasons for that;
(4) given that at present, there is no statutory requirement for privately-run kindergartens not receiving subsidies from the Government to make public their financial positions, which renders it impossible for the parents to know whether such kindergartens have charged exorbitant application fees for profits, whether the EDB will examine introducing legislation to require all kindergartens which have obtained an approval to charge above-the-ceiling application fees to make public the breakdowns of all expenditure items that are related to the admission of students;
(5) of the following in the past five years: (i) the number of inspections conducted by the EDB to see if kindergartens had charged application fees pursuant to the requirements, (ii) the number of non-compliant cases uncovered by the EDB during such inspections, and the respective numbers of non-compliant cases in which (iii) advices were given, (iv) warnings were issued, and (v) prosecutions were instituted (set out the information by District Council district in a table); and
(6) of the frequency of the reviews on the amount of the approved ceiling of application fees for kindergartens conducted by the EDB and when the next review will be conducted; whether the EDB has, since setting the approved ceiling at $40 three years ago, assessed if such amount is sufficient to cover the basic expenses of student admission procedure in kindergartens; whether the EDB has plans to increase such amount in the coming school year?
According to section 61(1) of the Education Regulations, schools must obtain the written approval of the Permanent Secretary for Education before collecting any fees whatsoever other than the inclusive fees as printed on the fees certificate, including application fees. To streamline the administrative procedures, the Education Bureau (EDB) has set $40 as the approved ceiling of application fees collected by kindergartens (KGs). KGs that wish to collect an application fee exceeding the approved ceiling are required to submit an application together with justifications and relevant information to the EDB for consideration. The EDB will consider and process each application on its own merits with due regard to its justifications. Currently, the vast majority of KGs charge an application fee not exceeding the approved ceiling. In the past 25 years, only 36 KGs have obtained approval for collecting an application fee above the approved ceiling, the vast majority of which have not joined the Pre-primary Education Voucher Scheme, representing four per cent of some 1 000 KGs in Hong Kong. Of the 36 KGs, 30 are international KGs, and the remaining six are local KGs that have charged an application fee of $90 or below. The EDB is actively following up on the recommendations made in The Office of The Ombudsman's (the Office) direct investigation report released on December 19, 2016, on the EDB's regulation of KG application fees. Regarding the question of the Hon Cheung Kwok-kwan, my reply is as follows:
(1) The number of KGs which collected an application fee exceeding the approved ceiling of $40 in the past three school years from 2014/15 to 2016/17 is at Annex 1. The EDB has provided the particulars of individual KGs, including their names, districts where they are located and the application fees collected, in the online version of the Profile of Kindergartens and Kindergarten-cum-Child Care Centres for the information of parents and the public.
(2) The EDB objects to KGs making profit by collecting application fees and would process each application with care. Nonetheless, as all KGs are privately run on a self-financing basis, the student admission arrangements and related expenses of individual KGs may vary considerably. Many of the international KGs have their own characteristics in respect of curriculum, teaching and qualifications of teachers, and they have their specific arrangements for admission. For example, while the admission exercise of local KGs mainly lasts for three to four months, international KGs usually admit students all year round. Some international KGs hire professionals to assess students' educational needs, and arrange guided campus tours and school open days, etc. The EDB has to consider each application on its own merits in the light of its justifications. It may not be practical to simply resort to a uniform standard or set a ceiling for determining the approved amount.
(3) and (4) We understand the concerns of parents and the public about the relatively high level of application fees collected by KGs. In response to the recommendation of the Office for strengthening the approval and regulation of application fees, the EDB has set up a working group to review the approval mechanism and draw up working guidelines. The EDB already issued letters to those KGs approved to collect an application fee exceeding the ceiling in mid-January this year requesting them to review their admission procedures and confirm whether the services and activities covered by their application fees were still applicable. They were also required to submit records of their incomes and expenditures relating to student admission in the past three years for our examination and consideration if there is room to lower the approved amount. Moreover, we required KGs to formulate a clear fee collection mechanism, increase the transparency on the collection of application fees, clearly explain to parents the purposes and rationales of the fees to be collected and the services to be provided, and indicate whether a refund arrangement was in place. To step up regulation of fee collection of KGs, we will explore the feasibility of approving the collection of application fees with a specified validity period and other viable measures under the law.
(5) The EDB officers visit and inspect KGs to ensure that their operation and management are in compliance with the Education Ordinance. Any breaches concerning collection of application fees by KGs are also identified through other means, including our day-to-day contact with KGs, browsing of KG websites and reports made by parents. In the past five years, a total of 16 KGs were found to have breached the regulation on collection of application fees. Information on handling such cases is set out at Annex 2.
(6) The EDB reviews the approved ceiling of application fees as necessary. The last review was conducted in early 2014, with the approved ceiling revised from $30 to $40, and a circular was issued in April 2014 informing KGs of the revision. In considering revision of the approved ceiling, the EDB takes into account a number of factors, including impacts on parents, financial situation of KGs, etc.
Since the existing approved ceiling of application fees is considered generally sufficient for KGs to cover the cost incurred in the application procedures, such as preparation of relevant information and forms, we do not have any plans to review the ceiling at this stage.
Ends/Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Issued at HKT 17:10
Issued at HKT 17:10