Education is one of the most important public policy areas for the new leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam whose five-year term of Chief Executive began on 1 July 2017. She promised in her election manifesto to increase financial resources to the education sector. In the financial year 2017-18, the total government expenditure on education is estimated as HK$87.5 billion. The recurrent education spending is about 21.3 per cent of the overall government spending. In 2015-16, about 3.3 per cent of GDP was spent on education. This is lower than other high-income economies.
In early July, Lam announced in her first question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council that the government would be spending an extra HK$3.6 billion as the first step to fulfil what her manifesto promises. Money would be spent to provide a non-means-tested annual subsidy of HK$30,000 for local students to take full-time locally accredited local and non-local self-financing undergraduate programmes, to increase the ratio of classes to teachers in public primary and secondary schools with the creation of 3,200 permanent teacher posts in the 2017-18 school year. She also proposed an initiative to develop standardized salary scales for kindergarten teachers as a long-term policy goal. Her education policy direction is largely agreed to by different stakeholders in the education sector. However, the increase of annual education budget cannot solve all problems in the education sector as four key issues remain largely unresolved.
Firstly, the provision of subsidies to around 39,000 local students for pursuing self-financed degree programmes in self-financed higher education institutions, which provided around 10,000 first-year-first degree places in 2015-16, can alleviate their financial burdens to a certain extent. However, some students may still have to pay much higher tuition fees, which can be as high as HK$110,000, than publicly-funded universities’ fees at HK$42,100. It is also not known if the HK$30,000 subsidies will be offset by possible fee hikes imposed by those self-financed institutions. It is possible that students for self-financed programmes will need to bear much more expenses for their degree studies than others who study in publicly-funded universities.
Secondly, in recent years, there have been widespread concerns over the quality of associate degree qualifications, which are not fully recognized by employers, and also the highly limited opportunity for associate degree graduates to continue their undergraduate studies in public universities in Hong Kong. Worse still, there have been problems facing some self-financed community colleges like poor quality of facilities and education as well as an over-subscription of students over the years. Should associate degrees be replaced by professional diplomas which may better equip students for work or further studies? How could the credibility of associate degrees be enhanced and improved? These are some questions that need to be considered under the forthcoming review of the education system that Lam has promised.
Thirdly, in the face of a widespread discontent among parents, the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) for Primary 3 was suspended for one year in 2015-16 and it was modified and reintroduced as Basic Competency Assessments (BCA) in 2016-17. Originally, a centralized assessment for providing vital information on students’ strengths and weaknesses, TSA had turned out to be an important indicator for inter-school comparisons and competitions, thus imposing considerable pressures for students. It is not known what the new government will decide with regards to the maintenance or abolition of BCA in the coming academic year and onwards. The resolution of this issue will be one of the major tests facing Lam’s team in winning back and restoring the trust of the general public towards the government policy and administration.
Finally, with National Education being identified as a pressing issue by the Beijing government, together with Lam’s determination to nurture future generations as citizens who are socially responsible with a sense of national identity, it is not surprising that the National Education programme will be put forward once again, perhaps this time with much more careful planning and preparation. One way to deepen students’ understanding about the mainland could be done with history education, as Lam suggested in her election manifesto, by making Chinese History as a compulsory subject for junior secondary school students. It would be less controversial than creating a standalone subject of National Education with overtly political features.
While many people expect the new Chief Executive to bring a new governance style to meet such goals as repairing a much divided society in Hong Kong after major disruptions caused by political controversy and, more importantly, restoring people’s trust towards the government by adopting a less combative approach to dealing with different stakeholders in the society, among them the political opposition. Lam stated in her election manifesto: “The Government should create a stable, caring, inspiring, and satisfying teaching and learning environment for students, teachers, principals and parents.” Time will prove whether she can achieve this education policy goal.
Dr Michael Lee is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include comparative education, higher education and history of Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
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