SCMP Monday, June 25, 2001

Ambitious education goals need to be set


Education is a recurring theme for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. He has consistently highlighted education reform in his annual policy addresses. In the last civil-service reshuffle, Mr Tung appointed as Secretary for Education and Manpower the well-regarded Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, an indication he wanted to put her strong abilities to good use in an area about which he cared.
The new Financial Secretary, Antony Leung Kam-chung, previously spent years looking at how to improve the education system. Mr Leung chaired Hong Kong's two most powerful education bodies: the University Grants Committee (UGC), which dispenses public money to the city's tertiary institutions; and the Education Commission, which is responsible for advising the Government on overall education policies and priorities for implementation.
At the highest level of Government, it is well understood that improving education is vital to Hong Kong's future. Indeed, Mr Leung talked about Hong Kong as "Manhattan Plus" and said that in five to seven years, this city would "conquer the world". These big claims will not amount to much if we do not have the manpower to drive progress in economic, social and cultural activities.
To Mr Leung's credit, in his time as the chairman of the UGC and then the Education Commission, he did a lot to push reforms. He tried to galvanise school principals, teachers and parents, which was no easy task.
However, still missing is a clear articulation of Hong Kong's overall education goals and an action plan for change shaped as a political vision rather than an administrative plan. Some positive steps have been taken, which must now be capitalised upon to create a far-sighted and bold agenda.
Serious reform will need money - a lot of money - and the Government will need the public's full support to find the resources to make a sustained push to implement an ambitious plan.
Education reform could be a key plank of Mr Tung's re-election campaign in March next year. Although he has yet to declare his candidacy formally, everyone assumes he will run and win. If he could spell out a clear education agenda, that could be his best chance of finding an issue that resonates in the public's mind, thereby providing a unifying vision for Hong Kong, for which he so longs.
Let us look at some facts. Hong Kong provides nine years of free and universal basic education. Most students complete 11 years - that is, many graduate from secondary school. Approximately 18 per cent go on to further education in Hong Kong. We have seven universities, one institute for teacher training and a performing-arts academy, which are all publicly funded.
Moreover, another six to seven per cent of our young people study at tertiary institutions overseas. In other words, about 25 per cent of our young people receive a university education. Another eight per cent attend various types of associate-degree programmes.
But is this sufficient to drive progress in the future? Even the Government does not think so. That is why officials have talked about creating more self-financed associate-degree courses and have even floated the idea of financing students to study overseas. However, at the same time, the Government has cut funding to local universities, which will affect teaching quality.
Contradictory policies confuse educators and the public. Just what are we trying to do? One key question policymakers must answer is: To what percentage of our young people do we want to provide higher education? Is there a plan to increase the current 25 per cent to, say, 35 per cent? And if so, over what period?
If we are to make a big push in Hong Kong, what resources do we need? The fact is Hong Kong still spends too little on education. Although education occupies 23 per cent of the Government's recurrent expenditure, Hong Kong only spends 3.5 per cent of its gross national product on education, compared with 6.8 per cent in Sweden, 5.2 per cent in the United States, 4.6 per cent in Britain, 4.4 per cent in South Korea, and 3.6 per cent in Japan.
Although public funding for primary and secondary schooling increased substantially between 1994 and 2000, the amount for tertiary education seems to have topped out. It is right to spend more on primary and secondary education, but Hong Kong needs to find the money to continue to invest in its universities as well. Indeed, we need to spend more throughout the education chain, from kindergarten to tertiary level, if we are to compete in a knowledge-driven world.
There is talk about privatising education, especially our universities. Privatisation would result in greater flexibility in how universities are run, and there are perhaps good candidates in Hong Kong. However, privatisation needs to be articulated as a part of an overall vision rather than narrow cost savings.
It cannot be emphasised enough that Hong Kong needs to spend more on education, not less, albeit more efficiently. We will not be fulfilling a fundamental need if we take resources from universities to help primary and secondary schooling. We need to raise serious money for both.
So, where can the money come from? There will not be enough from recurrent government funds. There is even a limit to how much we can dig into our healthy reserves. The Chief Executive should think about persuading Hong Kong people to pay an education tax. This could be an additional percentage on top of salaries, profits and perhaps even other taxes, which would be applied for education spending.
As Germans were willing to pay an additional percentage of tax to finance reunification with the former East Germany, Hong Kong people might be willing to finance education expansion.
However, before we loosen our purse strings, we would need from our leaders a comprehensive plan on a persuasive education agenda for Hong Kong to make a quantum leap in its pursuit of knowledge.
Christine Loh Kung-wai ( ) heads a non-profit think tank and is a former legislator.