A creative boost
The latest Global Competitiveness Report, released by the World Economic Forum, ranks Hong Kong 12th among 131 economies, as measured by the global competitiveness index. Though its overall score remains unchanged, at 5.37 out of a possible total of seven, the city has suffered a slight drop, from 10th position last year, implying that other competing economies have outperformed us in some areas. South Korea has overtaken Hong Kong, jumping from 23rd last year to 11th this year. Both Singapore and Japan continue to rank higher than Hong Kong.
The index is based on various pillars of productivity and competitiveness under three groupings - basic requirements, efficiency enhancers, and innovation and sophistication factors. As an economy matures, the weighting shifts from basic requirements (such as infrastructure, macroeconomic stability and primary education) to efficiency enhancers (higher education and training, financial market sophistication, technological readiness, and the like), and innovation and sophistication factors (business sophistication, for example).
Hong Kong is classified as in the innovation-driven stage, hence these factors carry more weighting than basic requirements (30 per cent to 20 per cent), with the rest going to efficiency enhancers.
We should not be unduly troubled by league tables, as international perceptions and rankings do fluctuate, and we should not take quantitative indicators too literally. Yet, the index assessment does provide some good pointers for self-reflection. Hong Kong's leading edge as an international financial and business hub lies in the 'efficiency enhancer' pillars of financial market sophistication and goods market efficiency (both rank first in the index). The city is ranked 5th in overall basic requirements and 3rd in efficiency enhancers.
However, its overall ranking has clearly been pulled down by its less competitive performance in innovation and sophistication, where it was ranked 21st - lagging behind Singapore (13th).
Rankings of 28th for health and primary education, 26th for higher education and training, and 23rd for innovation all warrant concern as well.
Since the handover, the government has invested much more in education and innovation technology, but the index findings call for revisiting our strategy to nurture creative and innovative capacity, and for charting a new course in education reform.
Much has been said about the challenge posed by globalisation and the advent of the new knowledge era. Indeed, no global city can thrive without possessing strong creative capital. A creative environment hinges not just on hardware investments but, more importantly, on the cultivation of the mind. This can, ultimately, be sustained by a free and vibrant media, a strategy in the public and private sector that rewards new thinking and risk taking, and an education system that encourages learning by critical inquiry rather than by rote - as well as an appreciation of the arts, culture and the diversity of thought.
Education matters, as it is a process of creating knowledge and understanding, and the capacity to transform. Hong Kong has passed the extensive-development stage of education - that is, the provision of more school places, a longer period of free education, and greater opportunities for vocational and higher education. A creative stage of development is now called for as Hong Kong aspires to become an education hub. It is not what we teach but how we teach that is critical. A long-standing question is: have our teachers been over-teaching and our students under-learning?
A recent report on the world's best performing school systems by the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company found that what pays most in achieving better educational outcomes are: getting the best teachers; getting the best out of teachers; and stepping in when pupils begin to fall behind. In other words, it is the quality of teachers. The crux lies in improving teacher preparation and development, and the status of the teaching profession so that it can attract top graduates.
Within schools, teachers must be given quality time and space to interact with students, to try innovative methods and to use intervention skills to help slow learners, so that overall standards can be enhanced. The phased introduction of small-class teaching in primary schools is a welcome move. Its significance lies not in reducing the class size, but in facilitating quality teaching and learning.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and the president-designate of the Hong Kong Institute of Education