The Education Bureau has failed to scrutinise whether kindergartens are profiting from student application fees, the Office of the Ombudsman has said in its latest report on Monday.
The watchdog slammed the bureau for its “lax” approach in processing kindergartens’ requests for permission to collect higher fees.
Currently, of the 1,000 kindergartens in Hong Kong, 36 charge an application fee ranging from HK$50 to HK$3,700. According to the report, 30 of those kindergartens are international kindergartens, which charge at least HK$300 for admission.
There are no criteria for vetting requests for collection of fees above the ceiling of HK$40, resulting in an inconsistent treatment of cases by different officers. There has also been a failure to accurately assess whether the fees are reasonable or not, the report said.
The report found that 19 kindergartens had only provided a general description of staffing arrangements and workflow, and yet the bureau approved their requests without asking them to give further details of their expenses.
A bureau spokesperson said in a press release that it is difficult to vet requests according to a uniform standard, as some international kindergartens hire professionals to assess applicants, or organise orientation activities such as open days or campus tours.
Since all kindergartens are privately run, and do not have to submit financial reports to the bureau, there are practical difficulties in examining the income and expenditure arising from admissions, the spokesperson added.
‘Passive and slack’
Between 2009 and 2014, the bureau concluded that there were 18 cases of application fee overcharging and issued one written warning.
The Ombudsman criticised the bureau for failing to follow up rigorously on cases of complaints. It said that the bureau did not bother to ask the kindergarten to refund excess amounts even after finding out that one was collecting fees above the ceiling without approval.
“No proactive follow-up action would be taken by the Bureau unless some dissatisfied parents came forward. This is very unfair to those parents who did not know that they could ask for a refund,” the report said. “The EDB is blameworthy for being so passive and slack in its regulation of kindergarten’s collection of application fees.”
The office made five recommendations, including speeding up the formulation of working guidelines for staff approving requests and requiring kindergartens to provide clear details on estimated expenses with substantive evidence.
The full report is available on the Office of the Ombudsman’s website.