First Continuing Professional Development Alliance President Summit on “Education Reforms and Professional Development in Hong Kong ”
25 April 2005
The Landscape of Education in Hong Kong
Professor Arthur K C Li
Secretary for Education and Manpower
I am well aware of the many criticisms of our educational system here in Hong Kong . Some say we are doing too much too fast. Others say we are not doing enough particularly in the areas of language education and small class teaching. The overall impression seems to be that we, at the Education and Manpower Bureau, do not know what we are doing. This is borne out, they say, by the fact that many parents prefer to send their children overseas to study because of the so-called “mess” we are making here. Moreover, as a bureau with spending constituting nearly a quarter of the government’s annual budget, we have been criticized for being extremely wasteful. The example quoted is that we are closing down under-utilised schools after they have just been re-developed. The fact that the decisions taken were at least 6 years apart is conveniently omitted.
With such resounding endorsement from our community, I can assure you that no Secretary for Education and Manpower now or in the future stands the slightest chance of becoming Chief Executive.
Fortunately, people in education are in education for the sake of education and are fully focussed. They do not harbour ulterior motives. That is why I have every confidence that we will succeed in all our educational undertakings.
Today, I would like to discuss with you one of my favourite topics: “The Landscape of Education in Hong Kong ”. I want to share with you where we are at the moment, what we want to achieve, and what we are doing about it.
First and foremost, we must have very clear-cut aims. Essentially, it is to motivate our students to learn by creating an environment that is conducive to learning. One can certainly put pressure on people to motivate them, by increasing examination pressure, by telling them they are worthless if they don’t make a certain standard or grade. However, that would not be a happy environment. Students would grow up dreading and shunning the learning process and regard it as a chore. They would certainly not develop into lifelong learners. Is it not better to put them in a happy environment where their curiosity would be kindled and where they would want to learn?
By the way, those of you in this very room are all highly educated and successful individuals. Please raise your hand if you have recently, or in the last year, picked up a book unrelated to your work , on some serious topic like astronomy, carpentry, or art appreciation. Not many as I can see. Have you ever wondered if your curiosity for new knowledge or your motivation to develop your many interests might have been dampened by too many examinations and too much cramming when you were a student? I congratulate you if your answer is in the negative.
When information explosion is coupled with a rapidly changing global environment, education can no longer be simply a transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. Much of what is knowledge will become outdated in increasingly short cycles. In order to be competitive, our young people should be taught how to learn on their own once they have developed the appetite to learn.
In other words, they must know where to collect data, how to analyse them, what is relevant and what is rubbish. From there they can draw their own conclusions about different issues.
Once we have set our aims, we must ensure that the system allows us to achieve these aims. The key players in our system are always the teaching professionals. Without high-quality and dedicated teachers, no amount of money the government spends will ever make the reforms successful!
Let us start with looking at early childhood education . Ever since 2004, all kindergarten teachers have been required to be fully qualified before they can teach, and all new kindergarten principals have had to complete the necessary training and possess certificates of early childhood education. Over the next 6 years we shall continue to upgrade the standards of kindergartens and improve the qualifications of all teachers in early childhood education. To achieve this goal, we have decided to make available a wide range of courses tailored to meet the different needs of individual kindergarten teachers. Instead of using a single training service provider, therefore, we hope to encourage more service providers to come forward with different courses.
I think we all agree that some competition is healthy, and that it is preferable to total monopoly. Yet when we take out some of the training places from the Hong Kong Institute of Education for open bidding, we are severely criticised by those with vested interests as well as some LegCo members, even though the total number of training places have been increased.
We now turn to the nine years of basic education: six years in primary school and three in junior secondary school. We have already abolished the Primary Six Academic Aptitude Test (AAT) and launched curriculum reforms. In this way, we hope to remove the pressure of examinations and make learning much livelier and more enjoyable for school children. Drilling and rote learning are de-emphasized because there is no longer the pressure to pass examinations.
However, a certain amount of pressure is still necessary to ensure that the schools are able to educate our children to the standards required. Otherwise we could end up with a lot of happy children who are nevertheless empty-headed and ignorant.
This is why we have introduced and strengthened school accountability by having internal and external school assessments, so that schools can reflect on and improve their delivery of education. By introducing basic competency assessment at primary 3, primary 6 and secondary 3, we are setting the minimal standards that students at those levels must attain. I must also stress that these assessments are not public examinations for assessing individual students. In fact students do not even need to put down their names in the assessment exercise. It is rather an assessment of individual schools to see how well their students at specified grades have been doing, and whether they meet the minimum standards. If a considerable proportion of students fail to achieve the minimum basic competency in a particular school, then that school must draw up plans to see how it can improve its teaching. Critics have accused us for abolishing one public examination and replacing it with another examination. They have criticised us for giving extra workload to the schools by requiring them to formulate plans for improvement. They say our policies are ‘self-conflicting’ and our philosophies ‘inconsistent’. By drawing up catchy slogans like “政策矛盾” ( policy conflict) and “朝令夕改” ( fickle like the weather), and repeatedly repeating them over and over again, they have managed to confuse and worry the entire community very successfully.
Having said that, we are happy to see that, by reassuring the schools that data pertaining to their students’ performance will not be made public, and that such assessment is only a means to help them deliver better education, opposition has somewhat subsided. Nonetheless, our key objective is to improve the quality of our teachers; we have thus allocated $550 million to support and step up professional development of teachers and principals.
At the senior secondary level, our present system requires our students to study academic subjects for 2 years before taking a public examination, the HKCEE. About one third will be selected to embark on 2 more years of academic pursuit before taking another public examination, the A-levels. About half of these students will then be admitted to our universities. What about the two-thirds of students who can’t make Secondary 6, and the 50 percent of Secondary 7 students who do not make it to the university? What it really means is that five-sixths of each senior secondary cohort , or 82 % of these students, will be completely stranded.
For these 82%, the academic subjects they study in school will not equip them for work, or provide them with the needed skills to make a living. Can they simply be labelled as failures, and be left alone to be quietly forgotten? If so, we will have an enormous social problem on our hands: a lot of unskilled young people with nothing to do and nothing to lose because, after all, they are already losers in the academic system! Can Hong Kong afford to waste our only resource, the human resource, in such a cavalier fashion?
Mindful of the problem, the government has proposed a new academic structure for secondary schools and universities – the so-called 3+3+4 system. In the new system, we shall have 3 years of junior secondary school, like what we have now, but an extra year will be added at the senior secondary level, so that all students would have the opportunity to enjoy 6 years of secondary schooling. We also propose to add one extra year to all university courses to give space and time for the academic and personal growth of our university students.
If we lengthen secondary schooling by an extra year without changing the curriculum, we would be defeating our own purpose. Our ultimate aim is to ensure that those who are academically inclined will have the opportunity to attend university while those who are not will be able to equip themselves for life after school. The new curriculum has to achieve its mission of stimulating the interests of our students and developing their full potentials.
We have identified four core subjects that all need to take, namely English, Chinese, Mathematics and Liberal Studies.
We propose that there be no more than two to three elective academic subjects. In other words, the number of such subjects will be reduced, allowing us to bring in career-orientated studies which can attract both the academically inclined as well as those otherwise disposed.
More time will also be reserved for other learning experiences like community service, music, art, sports, and academic exchanges.
All in all, we are gratified to have enjoyed overwhelming community support for these proposals. However, to put them in place properly will take a good few years of meticulous planning and further discussions with various stakeholders.
In the meantime, what can we do to alleviate the problems confronting us? We have launched the very successful Project Yi Jin to re-educate our non-engaged youths. We have also brought this programme into our schools, to benefit our young people before they actually become non-engaged.
We have diversified our post-secondary education by introducing certificate, diploma, higher diploma and associate degree courses. In order for these courses to be properly recognized, we have increased university places in the second and third years to allow for articulation with these courses. Before this, students can only gain entry to universities by obtaining good A-levels. Now we have opened up other avenues for admission.
The participation rate for post-secondary education has jumped from 33% in 2001 to just over 57% today. Our original target was 60% by 2010. While we are fast approaching the target in terms of student numbers, we must be wary of quality control. To that end, we have charged the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation and our universities with the task of ensuring quality and maintaining standards.
When we turn to the universities, we have heard doom and gloom being predicted, as government funding is being ‘slashed’. Indeed in 2004, we reduced recurrent funding to our eight universities by 10%, or $1.1 billion in dollar terms But what have we done with that money? We have set up a matching fund of $1 billion so that for every dollar raised by the universities through donations, we match it with a dollar. Within less than a year, the eight universities made $2.3 billion. The scheme has been so successful that the universities are now asking for more even though they were highly critical of the scheme at the beginning.
Despite the so-called reduction in funding, our universities continue to do well, with 3 of them being listed among the top 100 universities in the world by Financial Times. What is more, our business schools are ranked at the very top in Asia .
Because of our strength in tertiary education, we want to establish Hong Kong as the regional educational hub by attracting more fee-paying, non-local, and high-standard students to study here. I just signed an agreement for the mutual recognition of qualifications with mainland institutions last year, and have sought the cooperation of our Security Bureau and Immigration Department to facilitate the admission of non-local students into Hong Kong . I am sure our community will very soon benefit from the brain gain that will result.
So far I have mainly touched upon the Education side of my portfolio. As to the Manpower side, it has been just as active.
We have redoubled our efforts to enhance vocational training. Besides getting a Bill through the Legislative Council to allow the Vocational Training Council to extend its scope beyond Hong Kong , we have introduced a skills upgrading scheme, an Employee Retraining Board, an English workplace campaign, and many other courses to promote vocational training.
We intend to place all these training courses under a Qualifications Framework so that any employee will be able to follow a course of recognized, prescribed training in different fields to move up to different levels of attainment in his job or profession. In this way, an employer is able to know the capabilities of his employees, who in turn will know what additional skills and qualifications are required to seek career advancement.
Although this is a voluntary scheme, we are pleased with the response from industry. Together we have worked out the different levels of attainment specific to six industries, namely Hair Dressing, Watch and Clock, Chinese Catering, Printing and Publishing, Property Management and, Electrical and Mechanical Services. We shall be adding more industries to the list this coming year.
Approved and recognised courses will be listed in a Qualifications Register held by the HKCAA, which is responsible for quality assurance. Obviously the work of the HKCAA will have to be expanded and we shall be putting a Bill before the Legislative Council to that effect.
Don’t forget we have already had the Continuing Education Fund established to benefit seekers of continuing education from all walks. Their enhanced skills and knowledge in different areas will be highly beneficial to Hong Kong ’s overall development.
With all the work that I have outlined, I am trying to convince you that my colleagues at EMB have made definite impact through their efforts over the last few years when education reforms are being implemented.
For instance, independent surveys have shown that our student’s communication skills, independent thinking, motivation, creativity and commitment have all improved. The relationship among stakeholders, i.e. teachers, parents, alumni, sponsoring bodies, has also improved. So has the morale of the majority of teachers. What is important is that primary school students now find learning much more enjoyable. You only have to ask a child if he or she enjoys going to school and you will get a resounding yes. What a difference it is from the days when I was in school.
On the vocational side, over 100,000 people have benefitted from the Skills Upgrading Scheme since September 2001. Over 140,000 applications for the Continuing Education Fund have been approved since June 2004. Over 20,000 students have enrolled in Project Yi Jin with a success rate of over 90%. In other words, these youngsters have either found jobs or are pursuing further studies, or both.
Many criticisms about our education system and our students are utterly unjustified. For instance, in the independent PISA study conducted in OECD countries in 2003, Hong Kong 15-year-olds came first in mathematics, second in problem solving and third in science. These results are the envy of many developed countries.
In the International Mathematics and Physics Olympiad 2004, and the Intel International Science and Technology Award for 2004, our students did exceptionally well when compared with those in other countries.
Besides academic achievements, our students won many gold and silver medals at the special Olympiads Winter Games and at the Athens Paralympics Games in 2004 in swimming, field and track and gymnastics.
I mentioned earlier that the key to success for our education reforms is quality teachers. We have now established the Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence to reward and recognize exemplary teaching. Many of our teachers have also won national awards.
If we look at the overall qualifications of our teachers, there have been marked improvements. For primary school teachers, over 90% are now trained and nearly 60% have degrees. For secondary schools, over 80% of our teachers are both trained and degree-holders.
Education is a long-term process. To succeed, we need support from you and our community. Next time you hear criticisms about our education system, do stop and think before you agree. One single incident or one case should not tarnish the credibility of the entire system. In the end, you may agree or you may want to give us the benefit of the doubt. I certainly hope that you will give us that benefit . After all, this is what education is all about: to be able to analyse the facts, to look at the situation from different perspectives, and to arrive at an independent view.