Education vouchers are in use in many countries as the provision of education to citizens. The underlying philosophy of the voucher system is a defined benefit to citizens in assisting children’s education. Its fundamental principle is capitalist in viewing education and its cost in monetary term. As the voucher is in the hand of the student, it would give him the freedom to choose private schools. Policy makers claim that the voucher system could provide an incentive for schools to improve in order to attract students. However, private schools could not survive on vouchers alone. Students also need to pay the shortfall of the actual school fees. In many countries, it is only used to supplement the free public school system.
In Hong Kong, the pros and cons of the education voucher system have been discussed for quite some time. It is now only introduced in kindergarten education since a few years ago. The Hong Kong education voucher system is only for the low income families. Thus applicants are subject to a means test. As such, it is used as a social welfare system rather than an education system at present. The use of the voucher is limited. Not only that it is only issued to low income families, not all kindergartens are willing to join the voucher scheme and be subject to many restrictions imposed by the Education Bureau.
The government has announced the introduction of 15 years free education in Hong Kong. It is the extension of free education of primary school and secondary school studies to 3 years kindergarten education. The government is still undecided on how to implement this new policy, which is quite different from primary and secondary education.
When free education was first introduced in Hong Kong in 1971, there were already government-run schools, and many private schools run by missionaries, charitable organizations and commercially-run schools. Utilizing these resources for free education could not be done overnight. Government schools stopped collecting school fees immediately. For the private schools, an aid scheme was introduced. Schools joining this scheme would have all expenses paid for by government. They then offered free education but would need to operate according to conditions set by the government. Some schools which could operate sustainably on their own did not join the aid scheme. They remained as private independent schools charging school fees. However, to meet the demand of free education, the government bought some places from a few private schools and offered them free to students.
The government is now facing the mammoth task of extending free education to kindergarten. It can be done in many different ways; all are difficult. One way is to extend the present education voucher system and make it available to all kindergarten students. The administrative effort is large. The government would then be managing all students in addition to managing all kindergartens. All kindergartens will remain privately-run. However, as kindergartens are charging different levels of fees, students may have to pay the difference. Furthermore, many prestigious kindergartens may not be willing to accept vouchers and be subject to government control. It will not be free education for all after all.
Taking the model of primary and secondary education, the government could run free public kindergartens herself. But this is unlikely given the large set up cost and the lengthy lead time. Therefore, a possible solution is to offer an aid scheme. The government would paid for all expenses of a kindergarten under some standard conditions. At present, kindergartens come in a large variety. There are prestigious kindergartens in good location and luxurious premises. There are also small kindergartens in rented premises in multi-storey buildings. To maintain a fair standard, aided kindergartens will need to be brought up to an acceptable standard. This includes space, facilities, quality of teachers and standard renumeration. The Education Bureau will face a very complex task with work to be done in all these aspects..
But I think the most difficult issue to be resolved is not the provision of free kindergarten education, but just the reverse. Although the social welfare sector and the education sector are pushing hard on this policy, kindergarten education in general is not hard to come by. Notwithstanding the financial requirement, almost all young children are receiving kindergarten education. Many kindergartens are making a profit. These reputable and sustainable kindergartens may not be willing to receive government aid and be subject to control, but would remain private to reap the profit. At the end, there may not be sufficient free kindergarten places for those who need them, while there are surplus places in profiteering kindergartens. Thus the education voucher system may have to be brought back after all. It may not be a social welfare system but be used to supplement free kindergarten education in providing financial subsidy to those who could not get a free kindergarten place.