If CDNIS falls, Hong Kong’s governance falls a notch with it. Every failure of governance in government supported institutions is another sign that rule of law is faltering in our fair city. Photo: EDB head Ng Hak Kim. (Photo Credit: Alex Fok)
Hong Kongers may wonder why they should care about a school catering to mainland, expatriate, and Hong Kong elites. If the Education Bureau allows substandard governance standard to persist with only token commentary, it will call this branch of government into question, and by extension, the whole of government’s commitment to rule of law and proper modern governance.
The Canadian International School’s very public disagreement may seem remote and irrelevant to most Hong Kongers struggling to pay for educational basics like simple tuition, uniforms and textbooks. Indeed, the Education Bureau has other priorities than the education of affluent mainlanders, expats and locals. But the conflict at CDNIS goes to the heart of Hong Kong’s maintenance of rule of law and good governance across all our institutions, especially those supported by government land grants and government approvals.
Mission sleep, mission creep
Over 20 years ago, CDNIS was founded to provided a place for returnee students of Hong Kong ‘astronauts‘ to continue their Canadian education. The founders installed a governance structure that guaranteed them – the ‘Members’ – control of a veto on access to the Board of Governors, ostensibly as an oversight measure.
Like so many institutions in Hong Kong, the original mission seems to have been lost as the new reality of ascendant China makes its impact felt. The question is if new priorities will see the institution diverted towards a new purpose. If the returning children of the nineties astronauts aren’t the future, who is?
“Why should Hong Kongers care about a school catering to mainland, expatriate and Hong Kong elites? [Laxity calls] the whole of government’s commitment to rule of law and proper modern governance
Waves of emigres from Hong Kong, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, slowed to a trickle as those with the means acquired their foreign passports and installed their families abroad, most never to return.
While ‘Members’ disengaged from the school – none have children there and were unknown to the community until the recent turmoil – the school administrators and teachers from Canada took up the torch of bringing Canadian education, ideals and values to the student body. The parents and community loved it and the school rose to the top tier of Hong Kong’s best international schools, carrying the maple leaf standard at its fore.
While this was happening, Hong Kong changed.
The new scene
Unlike Singapore and China, which block access to international schools for their nationals, Hong Kong’s schools are under pressure from many quarters. In the new Hong Kong, the original customer base of international schools – expatriate children of senior executives – now compete with wealthy locals and droves of mainland Chinese financiers and entrepreneurs anxious to access the prestige and education that can see their children off to sought-after western institutions. In China, well-heeled mainlanders cannot, but for jumping through various legal loopholes involving taking on foreign citizenship, put their children in China’s new international schools. Hong Kong’s are open and inviting – except for the incredibly rigourous admissions programmes.
“If one school fails on this front, others may take note to bend the rules when opportunity or malicious pressure presents itself.
Relocation consultants often help with resettlement and applications to top tier international schools. They tell stories of having to politely explain application procedures to mainland clients who then expect to be able to buy their way into schools. If that’s how things work in China, it seems surprising Hong Kong would be any different.
Not a problem, unless governance is the problem
Much of modern governance practice around the world has evolved specifically to guard against this kind of threat to institutional integrity. Indeed, Hong Kong has striven, in the corporate world, to promote good governance to maintain our top position as ‘Asia’s World City’ and differentiate our city from our northern parent. Our rule of law extends into the enforcement of rules to make our financial markets attractive and successful. If education is to be of the same calibre in Hong Kong, it must also practice world class governance. If one school fails on this front, others may take note to bend the rules when opportunity or malicious pressure presents itself.
Unfortunately, one school is letting the Hong Kong team down by making an internationally recognised hash of its governance. The Council of International Schools (CIS) has, as recently as this year, again declined to extend recognition of accreditation to CDNIS. In a 2006 report, it gave the school’s administrators and staff a glowing report, noting that the only barrier to its accreditation was its poor governance structure – since unreformed.
“Mainland originated students and parents alike are hugely contributing members of the community and count many supportive parents who have taken the Canadian education ethos to heart.
This structure is at the heart of the conflict that has led to the widely reported resignations and dismissal of waves of administrators, support staff and teachers who built the school into Hong Kong’s most respected. Over the past year, the Head of School, Head of High School, Middle School, Lower School, multiple vice principals, a slew of teachers, Head of Business Administration, Head of Counseling, Head of IT and more have left. Parents paying top dollar for exorbitant fees have to wonder who will replace them to maintain Ontario and IB standards, at least, if CIS accreditation is a far off dream.
The Head of School has been replaced with an career admissions officer – never a confirmed head of school – from America with no IB or Ontario curriculum experience. His hiring bypassed an established procedure and was announced by the Members as a fait accompli. According to the EJ Insight, Dr Gregg Maloberti’s salary is approximately 50% greater the previous head of school, or, as EJ Insight puts it “more than that of President Barack Obama.” His predecessor was hired as a respected educator with decades of IB experience out of one of Vancouver’s most respected high schools, West Vancouver Secondary School.
Alumni, parents and current students speaking out on behalf of reform, have been ignored in deed, if not in word. On the international front, in addition to being suspended from the world’s biggest international teacher placement agency, Search Associates, the school has made the front page of Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, described as a ‘dysfunctional mess’. This is all at a school recently known as among Hong Kong’s finest.
Stakeholders? Aahhhhh schmakeholders!
Not all are dismayed at the actions of the Members, especially themselves, pointing the blame at others. The recently replaced Chairman, Richard Wong, suggested it would be better if outspoken parents and their children would leave. The current Chairman and perennial Member, Godwin Hwa, had his children in America at Dr. Maloberti’s former employer and is a former Executive Director of Sing Pao. A mystery website with no names has been set up under a false name and address to criticise reform advocates and posts the one pro-Beijing paper article decrying ‘foreign interference’, parroting a line usually used to criticise routine diplomatic commentary on Chinese affairs. Indeed, stakeholders like parents at the school attached to local consulates have been attacked on these grounds . Even the Canadian Consul General has been scolded, even though the Consulate has an ex-officio seat on the Board and certainly a vital interest in the flagship of Canadian education in Hong Kong.
Really who cares? You should.
If the Education Bureau allows substandard governance standard to persist with only token commentary, it will call this branch of government into question, and by extension, the whole of government’s commitment to rule of law and proper modern governance. This conflict is not yet a mainland versus local conflict, but could become one if clear, transparent governance is not enacted.
Hong Kong’s competitiveness, especially vis a vis Singapore, in attracting international executives and their headquarters and financial operations, is oft cited as a reason for supporting a vibrant international school sector. However, if the sector is allowed to become a vanguard of poor governance worming its way into Hong Kong’s institutions and government, we will be failing Hong Kong and endangering our city’s ability to ‘keep it clean’ in other sectors.
Mainlanders not the problem. Governance is
In the past, the school has, like most international schools here, seen it proportion of mainland students rise. With a strong administration and blameless admissions system, no one has has taken issue with this. Mainland originated students and parents alike are hugely contributing members of the community and count many supportive parents who have taken the Canadian education ethos to heart. To ensure this wonderful state of affairs continues, the governance structure must be reformed to attract a new group of administrators and teachers who can start the rebuilding process. Now, one must ask what committed up-and-coming teacher or vice-principal would work under the Members and their replacement administration given their reputation. The EDB has an interest in ensuring not only that top notch international schools maintain quality to justify their land grants, but also that they maintain the highest quality of governance. Quality and governance cannot be separated.
The school’s alumni and parents include people who impact on Hong Kong’s international standing and who are keenly interested in its continuing rule of law, low corruption and good governance. If one school can fail due to small group of entrenched Members and government inaction, other institutions could suffer similar neglect. Many parents have voted with their feet, pulling their children from the school. The whole of Hong Kong could suffer next if the stink spreads to the rest of Hong Kong’s reputation in the international community.
Disclaimer: Author and Editor in Chief Andrew Work was one of the 7 people, Members (2) and Governors (5), who resigned last November, based on his role as the President of The Canadian Club of Hong Kong. The M&A guarantees The Club an ex-officio seat on the Board of Governors.