Let's focus on why our schools are not up to the task

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2003, 12:00am

I FEEL THE urge to get one off my chest on education again. Here is Jake's Golden Rule on universities - the longer you spend in academia, the more unfit you render yourself for commerce.

The occasion this time is a letter to the editor published in yesterday's issue of this newspaper under the headline 'Hong Kong's misplaced goal of 'world class' universities'. It was written by a certain Name and Address Supplied, who revealed that he was a professor and whom I shall refer to as Dr Naas.

Dr Naas is dismayed at the talk of impending big funding cuts to be inflicted on universities and also says we are going the wrong way in aiming at 'world class' educational institutions. It would make more sense, he argues, to do as the United States does, and have a large number of average universities to cater to our need for skilled technicians.

I agree in part. It would be very pleasing to us all if Hong Kong had a few Nobel prize winners but pouring billions into these 'D' and 'E' grade universities we have is not the way to go about it. That route will never get us there.

The far better path, if this is our goal, is the one Japan took several years ago of establishing a full-time lobby operation in Stockholm as a means of securing a targeted 30 Japanese Nobel prizes in the first half of the 21st century.

Some members of the Nobel Foundation have taken issue with the 'ethical problems' introduced by this method but it is my guess that others have taken the money. Academics are not generally overpaid, senior ones in Hong Kong excepted that is.

It certainly has to be the cheap way of getting a reputation for 'world class' educational institutions, costing a minute fraction of what direct funding of universities costs. I heartily recommend it to our chief executive. We have mammoth reserves and his administration has little reservations about spending them on purposes that he holds dear. Value for money and Nobels for bribes, very cost effective.

But where I start to take issue with Dr Naas is his assumption that the average educational institutions he recommends need to be post-secondary ones. What happened to our school system? Is it truly such a poor one that the youth of Hong Kong can spend up to 14 years in it and still come out with nothing to satisfy the requirements of a reasonable job?

Perhaps it is but then let us not hand out the title of 'university' to every vocational training school that has pretensions beyond it merits. This has certainly been our record in recent years. Let us make it plain that technical schools are technical schools. They exist specifically for teaching technical skills and do not need teachers rated as professors.

More than that, let us have some attention paid to why our regular school system is not up to the task of preparing young people for the workplace. Do they really need to go all the way through that system before going to a technical school? This is a very expensive process and there are other pressing needs for the money.

Dr Naas says he accepts that fiscal responsibility is important and that to some degree, moderate cuts will not hurt universities but then complains that large funding cuts are being considered without a clear idea of how universities are to replace this funding.

I have a suggestion. Do not replace it. As an experiment with one of these institutions, let us for one year offer the students the full value of the subsidies they get as cash grants, to be used either to set themselves up in their own businesses or to be given back to that university for the right to attend classes.

It is my guess that the only sound to be heard for a year in those classrooms, if we did it, would be the jackhammers somewhere in the neighbourhood, soon to be followed by the use of those jackhammers on the classrooms.

I suppose a few of these students would look for entry to a vocational school. It could be a good decision. Let us have those schools then and, to make them cost effective, let the students choose which they would like to attend and also allow them to keep the portion of the cash grant that they do not need for tuition there. That would introduce some real cost discipline in this education business.

I quite agree with you, Dr Naas, that it is pointless to waste money on trying to make our universities 'world class'. I still think you have to demonstrate, however, that we would not also be wasting it on 'average universities', assuming, that is, that our universities even reach 'average' status at present.