Moral education can fill the ethical vacuum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2008, 12:00am

The importance of moral education cannot be overemphasised. University graduates with low moral standards and a lack of self-discipline will become irresponsible citizens in the future. Such a worrying trend calls for the government and educators to do some soul-searching and take action.

Last year was a bumper year for job seekers. The employment rate for local graduates was between 95 per cent and 97 per cent (the remaining 3 per cent to 5 per cent might have emigrated or didn't need to work). They, and those who graduated before them, have no reason not to repay loans to the government. That's taxpayers' money.

In the 2006/07 academic year, 6,300 students failed to repay loans, up 10 per cent from a year earlier. As Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung said, they did not repay the loans because of financial difficulties, sickness or so that they could pursue further education. He didn't say it, but the writing is on the wall: these graduates simply don't care. Their outstanding loans amounted to HK$117 million.

Some irresponsible graduates have resorted to declaring bankruptcy to avoid repayment, leaving the government to pick up the tab. As the Chinese saying goes: 'Four years later, I'll emerge a new person' (referring to the time it takes to be discharged from bankruptcy). Last year, such cases surged 40 per cent from 2006. These irresponsible people are shameless - the government always allows graduates in trouble to defer payments or restructure their loans. Worse, 67 alleged fraud cases involving student loans have been passed on to the police by the Student Financial Assistance Agency over the past two years.

These irresponsible young adults should be reprimanded. And educators and the government should reflect on whether they have failed our graduates.

Many university educators would argue that college students are adults and know what they are doing. Moral education and an emphasis on discipline aren't necessary. They are mistaken. We not only need to emphasise moral education in primary and secondary schools, but also to remind college students of the importance of discipline and setting high moral standards.

In some aspects, the current education system is flawed. Many local universities employ lecturers and professors on a contract basis. And only after two to three contracts (four to six years) will they be considered for permanent employment. The performance evaluation is largely based on research output (the number of research papers they publish in international journals) and teaching effectiveness. Teaching effectiveness is based mostly on how students evaluate them after a course is taught.

In order to please students, many professors treat them as valued customers. Students arrive late to class; no problem. They talk, eat or sleep in class; no worries. It isn't hard to see what kind of students we are producing under such a system. Not only in class do students show no respect and discipline, they exhibit the same undesirable behaviour even in public lectures.

As reported recently, former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones had the galling experience of giving a public lecture to several hundred university students who, for the most part, talked to one another and ignored him.

Why university authorities didn't take action against these disruptive students is beyond me. Perhaps they would argue that academic freedom should be respected and, thus, students' impolite behaviour could be condoned. But, in this case, academic freedom has nothing to do with moral standards and student discipline. The students should be taught how to respect others; their behaviour should not be tolerated.

That's what education is all about. To produce a better generation of leaders, there can be no room for complacency.

Victor Fung Keung is a Hong Kong-based commentator on political and education issues