Learning about spending
IT may have escaped the administration's attention that Legco members are busy campaigning for their own or on behalf of their party members' seats for the Urban and Municipal council elections this Sunday. Or maybe it hasn't escaped the administration's attention and it is hoping that between the accelerated campaign activities and the media interview requests members will only be able to pay cursory attention to the Budget.
As functional constituency elected members are considered to be only part-timers, I have no choice but to give more than a glance at some of the expenditure proposals for 1995-1996. The expenditure proposals have been considered by some as extravagant and by others as prudent. With our level of reserves, the Government could benefit taxpayers either by reducing taxes or increasing expenditure. Additionally, I suspect that next week I could say that I told you last Thursday that our 1994-1995 Budget surplus exceeded the estimate given on the last Budget day.
An expenditure area of considerable importance is education. This is because an educated society has a 'trickle-down effect' on the amount of expenditure in other areas such as social welfare and housing while increasing revenue. This is possible because better education will equip a workforce capable of producing high-end products and services. This will bring in higher wages that will result in increasing tax revenue to the public coffers as well as enable higher income earners to purchase homes and to increase savings, hence reducing reliance on social welfare.
Last year, the Liberal Party put forward numerous proposals on educational expenditure. To begin with, we asked the Government to eliminate the floating class problem. To achieve the Government's stated policy, the administration at the time needed to build another 19 primary schools and 44 secondary schools. Beginning construction on six new secondary schools is a start but will not meet the shortfall which will become more acute after 1997, as an estimated 64,000 children of Hong Kong residents in China will have the right of abode in the Special Administrative Region. Providing for the educational needs of these children should begin now as schools cannot be built overnight.
Secondly, to improve primary education, a further 138 primary schools needed to be converted to full-day primary schools. Disappointingly, conversion for only 17 primary schools is provided for in the upcoming year. Full-day primary schools will not only result in better education for students but will also free up prospective working mothers into our tight labour market.
There has already been a marked increase on the use of Putonghua. The demand will definitely continue and urgent attention must be given to this. While the administration has set aside a language fund for this purpose, is there an adequate number of qualified teachers to implement the programmes? If not, what arrangements have been made for recruiting the necessary teachers? Over the past year, there has been much discussion about the increase in juvenile crime and drug abuse. Tackling these problems begins in our schools. While effort has been made to reduce the ratio, it is far from satisfactory. More importantly, offering 750 places in practical schools is not adequate to discourage students who are not inclined to academic studies from the temptations of crime and drugs.
ON higher education, the Government has embarked on achieving its goal of raising school fees to meet an 18 per cent cost recovery rate; yet, it should not permit this policy to deter qualified students from receiving a post-secondary education. Even though the funds for student loans are to increase by 35.4 per cent, the actual increase is not as impressive now that the Government has anticipated a 27 per cent increase in the number of students qualifying for loans.
Overall, while spending on education takes up 21.5 per cent of the total recurrent public expenditure for 1995-96, this percentage has not increased greatly from the 20.4 per cent of five years ago. Actually the opposite is happening. If we compare that in real terms, educational spending will only increase by 4.9 per cent compared with a 6.5 per cent increase last year and a 7.3 per cent increase the year before. Is expenditure in education adequate for our future needs?