Needy Hong Kong minority children miss out on scholarships to some of city’s top fee-paying schools
South China Morning Post
by Ritu Hemnani
Thousands of children from low-income ethnic minority families in Hong Kong could be missing out on life-changing scholarships at the city’s international, private and subsidised schools, a report reveals.
Among the findings of the report by The Zubin Foundation, which focuses on issues faced by the city’s ethnic minorities, is that almost 60 per cent of financial-aid-based scholarships offered by Hong Kong’s international and private schools went unused. Low-income families are failing to enrol for scholarships worth a combined total of more than HK$300 million, the report’s authors say.
A majority of schools surveyed admitted they needed help in finding deserving students.
According to the report, the reasons for the low uptake range from poor awareness of the schemes to opaque application procedures; some schools also misallocate scholarships to existing students based on academic performance rather than on the grounds of financial need.
Susan Collins, a consultant with the law firm Stephenson Harwood and one of the report’s authors, first became aware of the situation when she joined the parents’ board at French International School in Happy Valley in April 2009. In return for the provision of land by the Hong Kong government, she learned, all Hong Kong Direct Subsidy Scheme schools (DSS) – non-government schools which charge fees but also receive government subsidies – and many international schools were required by the Education Bureau to set aside a percentage of their income each year, 10 per cent in most cases, to fund scholarships and/or other financial help for deserving students.
French International School was one such school. But even though the school advertised its scholarships in both English and Chinese newspapers, it did not receive a single application. Wanting to discover why this was the case, Collins teamed up with The Zubin Foundation to research the issues.
Only 47 per cent of international and private schools agreed to participate in the study, and less than 18 per cent of DSS schools responded. Of those that responded, 55 per cent of international and private schools, and 67 per cent of DSS schools, said they would benefit from help in finding “deserving students” to take up the places.
According to Shalini Mahtani, founder of The Zubin Foundation, many children from ethnic minorities excel in a wide range of subjects but struggle in schools where the language of instruction is Chinese – which limits their choice of, and access to, tertiary education. This “would make ethnic minority children the ideal candidates for the available scholarships”, Mahtani says.
She suggests schools should “consider matching the supply of scholarships with the demand from marginalised ethnic minorities, who cannot afford a private international education” with English as the language of instruction “and are unaware of these scholarship opportunities”.
She cites research that has shown how a single scholarship can enhance the lives of 26 people around the recipient. “Hong Kong schools can play a large part in creating a pyramid of growth out of poverty,” she says.
Polly Chan, founding chairman of Thrive Hong Kong, which supports children from low-income families, says: “Though talented and motivated, many students feel inferior because of their financial standing and struggle to join non-subsidised school activities.
“Due to their lack of experience and exposure, some also find it hard to hold conversations with their peers, fearing they might be bullied.”
Chan’s suggestions for overcoming these barriers include increasing awareness of scholarship schemes through joint school programmes, promoting exchange programmes and introducing a “buddy” system to enable students from underprivileged backgrounds to connect with their classmates.
Mahtani agrees that granting scholarships to ethnic minority students would require far more than just paying their school fees.
“Schools would need to consider how to fully integrate these students and ensure their financial needs are taken care of, such as their uniforms, activities and school trips. The students may also need a ‘big brother’ or ‘big sister’ so they can share their challenges,” she says.
Schools would need a diverse panel of interviewees to ensure there is no bias during the process, she adds. The management team and teachers would also need to have cultural sensitivity training to help these children integrate.
Collins comes from the United States, where there is a tradition of private schools actively seeking diversity within their student body. She says that diversity of religion, race and ethnicity at schools “contributes to the richness of the environment of teaching and research”.
Diversity could be improved in Hong Kong schools if scholarships were matched with the needs of the city’s ethnic minority children, she says.
The American Chamber of Commerce regards diversity as an area in which Hong Kong schools are lagging. “Hong Kong is on the verge of losing the very edge that has made it prosperous over the last century, and it must start by embracing the cultural diversity that is Hong Kong with the future generations of Hong Kong youth,” the chamber said in a 2017 submission on the Chief Executive’s Policy Address.
The Zubin Foundation report cited Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong as a school that did a good job in reaching out to ethnic minority communities. About 42 per cent of its students are local – including children from ethnic minorities – while the remainder are from overseas and from a variety of ethnic, national and socio-economic backgrounds.
“Scholarships are most effective when they go to humble students in need who would otherwise not be able to receive an education to overcome personal challenges and transform themselves through [United World College] education. This opens up new horizons, changes their lives and impacts society,” says Willie Heung, the school’s development director.
Collins also found that Kellett School, which offers means-tested bursaries as opposed to scholarships awarded purely on merit, is committed to increasing the ratio of bursary to fee-paying students.
Kellett School’s director of development and community relations, Laura Tyson, says it already provides bursaries for families that run into financial difficulties.
“We are committed to increasing the percentage of bursary students but are determined to do so responsibly,” says Tyson. “This means having a sustainable financial base and being mindful of the challenges. We plan to undertake engagement with NGOs and educational institutions to encourage prospective recipients.”
Despite such pledges, Collins found that only 27 per cent of international and private schools that took part in the survey believed they were required to provide scholarships. Nine per cent were in the process of developing a scholarship scheme and six per cent were unsure if they were required to have one at all.
Of the schools that offer scholarships, 36 per cent offered merit-based schemes, 36 per cent offered financial scholarships, seven per cent had a hybrid of both, and the remaining 21 per cent are in the process of developing a scholarship scheme.
Of the DSS schools that took part in the research, Collins found that 17 per cent had merit-based scholarships for students already enrolled at the schools, which they say defeats the aim of offering access to students who are otherwise excluded.
“I was alarmed to learn that some schools feel entitled to give scholarships to their best-performing enrolled students,” Collins says. “Surely the government’s intention was for schools to give scholarships to those that cannot afford this education?”
Mahtani feels the Education Bureau was right to impose requirements on schools to provide scholarships, because the scarcity of land in Hong Kong and its effect on the cost of living is a particular burden for low-income residents.
“It therefore makes sense that schools give something back to those with most need in the Hong Kong community,” she says.
Collins adds: “Education is changing and many of the jobs that our children will have do not as yet exist. Hong Kong’s education system must adapt. A diversity of views in the classroom can help students to broaden their minds, cultivate creativity and perhaps make them better prepared for the future.”
Collins found that if schools were to adhere to the rules, “they could provide scholarships for up to 800 students in international schools and possibly 7,000-plus students in DSS schools per year”.
Collins and Mahtani believe the Education Bureau should take a greater role in monitoring schools to ensure each scholarship listing is transparent and easy to understand.
“For effective change, the values of the school – its board, headmaster and administration team – must be in line with this change for values to be passed down to the students to foster an empathetic, accepting community,” Collins says.