Hong Kong education officials have said they will press on with a funding request of more than HK$470 million for a school redevelopment project “as soon as possible”, two days after the plan was abruptly halted amid concerns from lawmakers over the political stance of campus management.
Wa Ying College, which was caught at the centre of the row, maintained its mission was to nurture law-abiding and peaceful pupils. Principal Wun Chi-wa had been critical in a school publication over the government’s handling of the now-shelved extradition bill, which sparked months of protests in 2019.
The government-aided school, which had a roll of about 750 pupils last year, is seeking HK$473.3 million (US$60.7 million) in funding to redevelop its 50-year-old campus in Ho Man Tin as its existing establishments including classrooms and labs are undersized, while it also lacks facilities such as a student activity centre.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
The three-year project to demolish the current campus and construct new premises on the site was to begin after funding approval from the legislature. Campus operations were expected to temporarily move to a former school site in San Po Kong from this September for the redevelopment period.
Upon completion, the college will operate up to 30 classes from the current 25.
“We will explain to lawmakers about the redevelopment plans, with the hope that everybody can focus on refining and pushing the project forward. The funding request will be retabled to the [Legislative Council] as soon as possible,” an Education Bureau spokeswoman said in a statement on Thursday.
The saga began on Tuesday, when in a letter to Tony Tse Wai-chuen, chairman of Legco’s public works subcommittee, the government said it would withdraw the school’s funding request because it did not think it would be able to secure enough support.
Several lawmakers from the pro-establishment camp told the Post they had concerns over the project’s price tag, as well as the political inclination of the church which runs the school.
One such lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some legislators, including him, were concerned as the school was managed by the Methodist Church. He added that one of the church’s branches was “quite involved” in the 2019 protests and offered shelter for demonstrators.
“Is the project really that urgent and worth it? Many schools, with older campuses, have yet to ask for a huge fund for redevelopment,” he said.
Another lawmaker added: “The church ... needs to explain its stance on young people taking part in protests.”
The legislature’s education panel met on March 30 to discuss the funding request, with members raising concern about the high cost, although the item was endorsed by the body, paving the way for the public works subcommittee to scrutinise the bid.
During the 2019 protests, principal Wun had also said the government “would be responsible” if anything happened to young people. His pupils, much like their peers from other secondary schools at the time, had formed groups to oppose the bill.
The Post has reached out to the Methodist Church for comment.
Following the funding request being pulled, Wa Ying College said it was “disappointed” but stressed that it had always been the school’s mission to “nurture students to be law-abiding, caring, peaceful, and rational, and use non-violent ways to handle issues”.
“We were quite shocked to learn that the [funding request had been pulled], as we only read that in the newspapers,” said vice-principal Amy Lau Mei-chu.
Some pupils also said they felt disappointed, with one Form Four student adding she was “astonished about the sudden change to the redevelopment plans which had been in talks for quite some time”.
Former education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said the city would be in a “dangerous” situation if funding applications from public institutions were tied to politics.
“They are putting politics before education,” said Ip, vice-president of the Professional Teachers’ Union. “This will exploit the rights of students from the school to enjoy a better education as they have to use a campus that is below standard.”
But education panel chair and pro-establishment legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun insisted many lawmakers’ concerns were not politically related, while urging the school to provide more details, including those on costs, to address their questions.
In late 2019, the government also withdrew funding plans for expansion or upgrading projects at Polytechnic University, Chinese University (CUHK) and the University of Hong Kong amid reservations expressed by some legislators about their students’ roles in the anti-government protests.
In February, CUHK also withdrew funding proposals for an experimental facility for biotechnology and biomedicine, after lawmakers expressed concern over how the institution had handled social incidents in 2019.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok and Tony Cheung