Dangers of the 'new elite'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2001, 12:00am

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa undoubtedly strayed into an area of some controversy when he spoke last week to alumni at Hong Kong University about creating a 'new elite' in education.

The term elite, as Mr Tung clearly acknowledged, has unfortunate connotations. For many people, the word conveys an image of a chosen few who are the product of - and have lifelong access to - privilege. Usually this privilege is associated with money and, of course, money's concomitant: power.

The resonance of some words is often extremely powerful and hard to escape; this is certainly true of the term elite in the context of education.

Mr Tung's thesis, that all societies need an elite group of people and we should therefore not be ashamed of the existence of one, is difficult to find fault with. However, Mr Tung goes further and argues that we should actively encourage the creation of an educated elite. To strengthen his argument he cites modern educational trends in the US and UK. The basis of Mr Tung's view is, essentially, that during the 1980s there took root a view that egalitarianism was all important. As a result, argues Mr Tung, standards deteriorated and mediocrity became acceptable so long as it was shared by all.

There is undoubtedly truth in Mr Tung's rendering of recent trends in educational theory. Yet there are also problems with what he advocates.

First, it is almost impossible in practice to divorce elite education from the private sector. This makes the notion of elite education based on merit rather than money, as Mr Tung advocates, contradictory. Token scholarships, government grants and assisted places can remove money from the equation for a tiny minority, but for most people the overriding factor determining entry to a private school will be the ability to pay.

At a more fundamental level, however, there is the question of what an elite is precisely. It is by no means clear that the great captains of industry, the most successful business people and political leaders are all products of former academic success. Certainly academic qualifications do not guarantee success in any of these fields.

Hong Kong, like any society, needs to identify and encourage the brightest and best; but it needs to do so through an educational system that produces well-rounded individuals able to solve problems, innovate, be creative and inspire others. To achieve all this, it is vital their educational experience connects them to all aspects of society, not just a rarefied elite.