SCMP Saturday, May 6, 2000


Proposed school voucher system favours the elite


The much talked about "school voucher" system is perhaps the best way to enable those in charge of elite schools to hang on to their powers. The Government recently proposed that all primary schools be allowed to set aside only 15 per cent of their places for applicants of their choice. The remainder are supposed to be randomly assigned by lottery. Such a new admission arrangement will be the most effective way to curb the powers of the supervisors, principals and the establishments behind them.

Elite schools run by private organisations, in particular, find the official proposal threatening. They are keen to stay as independent from the Education Department as possible. At present, they are allowed to fill 65 per cent of their school places any way they like. If the ratio is to be cut back to 15 per cent, the number of openings at their disposal would hardly be enough to entertain requests from the school directors and their friends.

The number of places left to the schools' discretion would not be adequate for recruiting the right students from outside. A school's overall academic performance, and its reputation, could thus be jeopardised. Nepotism, favouritism and even bribery in the guise of donations are bound to surface, as parents scramble for the remaining 15 per cent of places for their siblings.

But if a voucher scheme were to be pushed through as an alternative, now or in the future, the results would be different indeed.

The American system of vouchers, used in universities, enables students to obtain vouchers which they can use to pay for - completely or partially - tuition in private institutions. In theory the choice of institution, public or private, is less restricted for those with less money.

But in the local context, if such a voucher model were adopted, the elite schools would continue to pocket the best applicants. Average students could hardly expect to be admitted to a reputable school, even if they had a right to use vouchers. Under such a system, the outflow from public schools towards upmarket institutions would be considerable and the elite schools, which would enjoy 100 per cent control over admissions, would reap the benefits at the expense of other schools.

The school voucher idea was first advocated by Nobel Prize laureate Milton Friedman, whose fanatical followers in Hong Kong have been enthusiastic about transplanting it to the SAR. They are under the illusion that such a scheme would empower the parents. But in fact, if it were applied to Hong Kong, the exact opposite would occur. Instead of empowering the parents, the elite schools would still be able to select from among the top students - even more than under the current system.

This is, in essence, a voucher system in reverse. It would insulate the conservative schools from reforms initiated by the Education Department and reformists such as Education Commission chairman Antony Leung Kam-chung. Elite primary schools would embrace such a voucher scheme and would also be eager to extend the system to their affiliated secondary schools. Such a synergy would help fortify their dominant position in the education market.

This is exactly why I have been a staunch opponent of this form of voucher idea. I would prefer to see the schools practising a more transparent and fair admission procedure.