University graduates should not compete with the needy for public housing

To many soon-to-be graduates, property prices in Hong Kong these days are pretty scary.

High prices, and probably the scare, translate into a whopping 19,822 public rental housing applicants who have received tertiary education or above. The figure is more than double the 9,036 applicants in the same category in 2010.

Rhetoric aside, high property prices hardly justify university graduates applying for public housing. In fact, as few as ten percent of some 93,000 non-elderly one-person applicants attribute their application to the city's unaffordable rent, according to statistics released by the Housing Authority.

There is no doubt that people, including the university-educated, want a place of their own. The real questions are who need and deserve public housing most.

In his Budget speech in February, Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang Chun-wah articulated the goal of government's public housing programmes. The government's policy, he said, was to provide public rental housing "for low-income families who cannot afford private rental accommodation." He pledged to maintain the average waiting time for general applicants, excluding non-elderly one-person applicants, at around three years.

Among the more than 200,000 applicants on the waiting list, there are low-income families that struggle to make ends meet amidst rising living costs; people who are forced out of their homes; couples who hope to build a family; and people who are living in dire conditions or downright homeless.

While the underprivileged spends on average three years waiting for the government to put an end to their housing plight, the 18 percent of students who have access to university education have the same, if not more, time to prepare themselves for their future careers.

It is unlikely that they need public housing because they are incapable. Hong Kong's education system is, to some extent, still elitist. Less than one out of five young people from the age of 17 to 20 have the chance to receive a university education. Compared to students of the same age group, they are de facto the most capable ones, at least academically, and those who do not have good grades must perform exceptionally well in other areas.

The universities in Hong Kong do not disappoint either. They are among the best in Asia and often attract the best teachers and students from abroad and the mainland. The price tag that comes with the education is not small. The four-year tertiary education programme, previously three-year, costs taxpayers approximately $200,000 a year per student. Students pay only a fraction of the amount.

The result is that, in monetary terms, fresh university graduates earn a mean monthly salary of $11,823, 38 per cent higher than secondary school graduates who have finished Advanced Level Examination ($8,590), according to survey released by Hong Kong Baptist University School of Business and the Hong Kong People Management Association in October.

To top it all, the Housing Authority statistics also show that 92 percent of non-elderly one-person applicants live with their parents. And the most important reason they apply for public housing, the statistics show, is that they wish to live alone.

When land supply for public housing is meagre and demand high, it is unjustifiable to allow capable and employable university graduates whose higher education is largely paid for by the taxpayers to join the same waiting list for a subsidised home with those who have more pressing needs.

While the government has tightened the allocation of PRH to non-elderly one-person applicants since the introduction of the Quota and Points System in 2005, it is not turning a blind eye to young people's housing need, especially when social mobility is key to economic prosperity.

The resumed Home Ownership Scheme will offer flats with an optimum size to families with a monthly household income of less than $30,000. Families with a higher income, who are left out under current policy, are not forgotten either. In collaboration with the Hong Kong Housing Society, the government is set to continue to implement the My Home Purchase Plan to provide small- and medium-sized rental flats for families with a monthly income of about $40,000. The programme allows them to save money, and move on to own the flat they rent or a flat from the private market.

Truth be told, there is no such thing as cheap, decent private housing choices that do not involve a long bus ride, or a tedious combination of train and bus rides, away from the city. It is also hard to imagine how fresh university graduates earning modest wages can afford even the smallest flats in the private market.

But adversity has always been a catalyst that has driven Hong Kong to where it stands today. If even the higher-educated pack is not confident enough to shoulder the pressure, Hong Kong may as well start saving to prepare for demands for more welfare in the near future.

Reported by Alan Wong 

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