The Education Bureau has warned a grassroots pro-democracy organisation against operating an unlicensed school.

From a building in Wanchai, the Intercommon Institute held courses on general subjects such as philosophy and economics, as well as on local topics such as Hong Kong’s history and agriculture. On March 28, bureau officials visited the institute after receiving a public complaint against it.

Intercommon Institute. Photo: Intercommon Institute via Facebook.

The bureau then sent a warning letter to the institute for not having registered as a school despite providing educational courses to over eight students, said organiser Chan Kim-ching.

He said that he had no choice but to stop running the courses. “Next time the Education Bureau will not send a warning letter – it will prosecute us directly,” he told Ming Pao on Thursday.

Education Ordinance

According to the Education Ordinance, “an institution, organisation or establishment which provides for 20 or more persons during any one day or eight or more persons at any one time… any other educational course by any means” must register as a school with the bureau.

The Building Authority or the Fire Services Department must also approve its premises.

Chan told HKFP that the bureau advised him to change the way the institute operates so that it does not appear to deliver educational courses. “We asked the enforcement officers at the scene… a senior official and a junior official together.”

“[They told us] that lectures are theoretically feasible… but the enforcement officers have to make a judgement as to whether they contain any academic elements.”

Chan Kim-ching. Photo: Jeffrey Ngo.

Chan said that the Education Ordinance was too vague: “They could not give us a clear explanation as to what is allowed and what is not allowed.”

Another organiser, Daniel Lee, told Ming Pao that he attended an Education Bureau event before establishing the institute. He quoted the bureau as saying he would only have to register the institute as a school if it taught primary and secondary education subjects.

“[They said] general interest classes and university or academic courses are not a target.”

Liber Research Community

The group behind Intercommon Institute is the Liber Research Community, composed of independent researchers studying planning, infrastructure development and land use in Hong Kong.

Earlier this year, Liber and political party Demosisto launched a crowdfunding campaign to support their study of the national archives in the United Kingdom, the United States and Taiwan, which aims to examine diplomatic negotiations related to Hong Kong.

Chan told HKFP he believed that Liber’s activism may have led to the complaint and enforcement action against the Intercommon Institute.

The Liber Research Community at the UK National Archives. Photo: Jeffrey Ngo.

“We’ve asked the opinions of many education sector workers,” he said. “As a preliminary conclusion we believe that… it was somebody using the [complaints] system to attack us.”

“We might have infringed upon some vested interests,” he added, citing Liber’s studies on the Wang Chau housing controversy and other land issues in Hong Kong.

However, he did not know who filed the complaint against the institute.

See also: Demosisto party, young scholars launch crowdfunding campaign to shed new light on Hong Kong history

The Education Bureau confirmed to HKFP that it had received a complaint regarding the operation of an unregistered school by the Intercommon Institute.

“The bureau investigated the premises in accordance with procedure and discovered violations of the Education Regulations,” it said. “The bureau delivered a written warning to the relevant individuals.”

The bureau added that it receives an average of 380 complaints per year against suspected unlicensed schools. It said that the operation of unlicensed schools is punishable by a HK$250,000 fine and two years’ imprisonment.

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.