Keep up standards

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 1998, 12:00am

Academic excellence does not always conform to conventional standards. History provides many examples of people who rose to prominence without passing statutory examinations. Hong Kong has plenty of examples of successful people whose training was in the university of life.

Recognition that talent in one field of study can exist side by side with weakness in another is implicit in the decision of some universities to award places to students who failed in either English or Chinese. The privilege will only be available to those who can afford full tuition fees since the Government will not subsidise applicants who cannot satisfy the examiners in every subject stipulated by the admissions system. However, it does give access to higher education to students who show exceptional promise in one particular discipline.

There is a lot to recommend that flexibility, provided that the emphasis remains focused firmly on the small proportion of entrants who qualify on such grounds. It would be counter-productive if relaxation of language requirements ended up by lowering in the quality of undergraduates, or overall skills. With increasing concerns about falling levels in English and Chinese in secondary schools, great attention must be paid to make sure that the new strategy does not lead to a decline in academic standards.

When Hong Kong had only two universities, only the brightest and best qualified for a place. Thousands of deserving students had to go abroad to complete their education. With eight such institutions now, the pendulum could swing too far in the opposite direction.

Complaints from employers about poor language abilities among graduates led Hong Kong University to insist that students pass both Chinese and English before being considered for admission last year. The Government would prefer all institutions of higher learning to take that approach - and quality is, indeed, more important than quantity in education. Students who have not attained the required language skills must make up the lost ground before they graduate, or they will not be very good advertisements for a Hong Kong education, however bright they are in other subjects.

Bilingualism remains crucial. Universities should aim for excellence which attracts overseas students before lowering admission standards for local entrants - and that can only be done when their potential proves such an approach to be fully justified.