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HK's schooling woes dim city's role as financial hub

Sep 4, 2011, 11:18 p.m.
Daniel Mullin (L) and his wife Cathryn listen to three-year-old Harry as their newborn Jake sleeps in the stroller in Hong Kong September 3, 2011. As global companies expand in Asia, financial hubs such as Hong Kong are suffering a shortage of international school places that may blunt the city's competitive edge against regional rivals including Singapore. For the Mullins who moved to Hong Kong from Britain in February, the stresses of finding a school for older son Harry have meant they'll be taking no chances with newborn Jake by putting him straight on a waiting list. Picture taken September 3, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Asia, with around half the world's total of nearly 6,000 international schools, is expected to drive growth in this sector in the next few years with school numbers expected to almost double globally by 2020 as demand surges, particularly amongst Asians opting for a broader, bilingual education.

"Almost two-thirds of the growth in schools and student numbers continues to be in Asia," said Nicholas Brummitt, who heads ISC Research, which tracks the sector. "Greatest demand continues to come from increasingly wealthy families in Asia (and) the Middle East."

To tap the booming multi-billion dollar industry, a slew of prominent U.S. and U.K. schools are establishing Asia campuses. These include Wellington College in China, Branksome Hall in South Korea, Dulwich College in Abu Dhabi, Epsom College in Malaysia, Harrow in Hong Kong and even a Haileybury in Kazakhstan.

Singapore, which vies with Hong Kong as a financial center, has also struggled to cater to swelling demand for places at international schools in the city state.

But with locals largely barred from enrolling in international schools and local schools offering schooling in English and Chinese anyhow, its seen to be far more receptive to the schooling needs of foreigners than Hong Kong.

HONG KONG VS SINGAPORE

Singapore's tight supply is also expected to ease with the opening of new sites, including the launch of a second campus by the popular United World College that charges around $25,000 in tuition fees per year, while Cognitas, a U.K. education group, will open a 2,750 place school next year.

In space-starved Hong Kong, where land is among the most expensive in the world, the government says it is trying to ease the supply bottleneck by allocating new greenfield sites and buildings that will create 5,000 school places in the next few years.

Some say the government needs to do more, particularly with the former British colony's business allure already hit by high property and rental costs, along with poor air pollution.

As Hong Kong drags its feet, the governments of Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea are gearing up to become educational hubs. Malaysia for example, is developing Iskander EduCity near Singapore, which has attracted major investment from Raffles Education Corp, one of Asia's largest private education groups.

"It's critical. If you don't get that right or if we can't offer that to people considering coming to Hong Kong, they'll go to Singapore, they'll go to Shanghai, or they'll stay put, so it's an absolute deal-breaker," Robert Chipman, head of Hong Kong's American Chamber of Commerce, told Reuters Insider TV.

"School spaces is such an important (factor) because it acts almost like a trump card. If you can't do it, then the rest of the hand doesn't make any difference. It's extremely important."

For the Mullins, a British family living in a breezy Hong Kong beachfront neighborhood, the stresses of finding a school for older son Harry meant they are taking no chances with newborn Jake and are putting him straight on a waiting list.

"It sounds crazy to plan it that far in advance," said father Daniel Mullin.

"(But) if you don't and you leave it to the last minute, then he stands literally no chance of getting in anywhere," his wife Cathryn added.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim in SINGAPORE; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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