Too much spending has distorted our education system

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2012, 12:00am


'We are in a competitive society and it is getting more competitive, and that is shaping our education system,' said [comparative education professor Mark] Bray.

SCMP, May 19

I shall accept that Prof Bray knows more about education than I do. He is a professional in the field and has just done an extensive survey on tutoring. All I can claim is a Bachelor of Arts degree and many years of paying children's school bills.

But I have spent more time working in the marketplace and I lay claim to a better understanding of how competition works in society. I think I understand the reason for the competitive forces of which Prof Bray complains in education.

The first chart gives you a clue. More than 26 per cent of the employed workforce now hold a degree from a tertiary level institute of education, compared with less than 12 per cent 15 years ago. Include non-degree tertiary education and the present figure rises to more than 34 per cent.

Employers love it - plenty of education wherever they turn. These days, for instance, you commonly find liberal arts degree holders serving you on flights, putting to work their deep understanding of English literature with such poetry as, 'Please remain seated, with your seat belts fastened, until the aircraft has come to a full stop.'

It was not that way when I graduated from university (and I'm not telling you when that was). If you had a degree the odds were good that you could find a job at which you could put your learning to work.

Consequently there was not quite as much competitive pressure in schooling as there is today and education could be more rounded. This was not only so in university. The difference is notable all the way back to kindergarten. The notion of resumes for kindergarten entrance back then would have been ridiculous (actually, it still is).

There is a simple equation here. When you have more jobs requiring degree holders than you have holders of degrees, employers must compete among themselves. When you have more degree holders than you have jobs requiring degrees, the degree holders must compete among themselves.

We have struck the balance way past the mid-point to a huge surfeit of degree holders these days. And yet secondary schools are still focused on churning out ever more university entrants. The schools in turn blame the parents for putting on the pressure.

I blame the money. The problem is that we have overinvested in education. Put too little money into education and you short-change society at large. Put in too much and you short-change the kids who have to undergo education.

It's not only unfair to the kids and a misuse of resources but it soon leads to perversity in education. I can honestly think of no better word than that to describe the fact that at least half of Hong Kong's school kids attend after-school crammer classes where the object is not to learn but only to pass exams.

But I don't blame the kids or the parents or the crammer tutors. Competition is a matter of proving your attainments better than someone else's on a standardised measurable benchmark and in education this can only be standardised examinations.

That's how you get demon exam-passers who don't understand the underlying concepts of the subjects they study.

We have an education system that focuses on the wrong things and it has gone wrong that way because we put too much money into it.

Thus, don't blame a more competitive society if you find that education has become misshapen, Prof Bray. Society overall has not become more competitive. Your real culprit lies closer to home.

And now the good news. There is some evidence at last that our government has begun to realise the futility of overeducation. Look at the second chart on education as a proportion of government general expenditure.

May common sense prevail.