For years, employers have been lamenting the competence and language standards of graduates. In a recent survey of member companies by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, more than 20 per cent found skills shortages in languages, and 70 per cent reported difficulties in recruiting appropriate talent locally.
It is also often heard that many employers find local graduates lack a broad perspective of the world - a quality required in a fast-changing environment. Of course, universities are not vocational training institutions, but when employers have such consistent concerns, it warrants a serious review.
Attention should focus on reform of university education. With the transition to a four-year system in 2012, Hong Kong has a clear road map. It is a golden opportunity to strike a balance between achieving excellent academic training and preparing graduates for the workplace.
It is unfortunate that the global financial crisis has hit when our preparation for the transition is starting in earnest. As priorities shift to assist the underprivileged and small businesses, we should not lose sight of the need to continue investing in tertiary education, which holds the key to our long-term competitiveness.
But this is not just a business for the government. The private sector has a big role to play, too. If employers believe our students lack a world view, they should, for instance, help them gain wider exposure through overseas exchanges.
These could involve sending students to the best universities around the world. For example, with a donation from Edgar Cheng Wai-kin, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Notre Dame in the US began exchanges this year.
Notre Dame is a well-kept secret, at least as far as Hong Kong people are concerned. The university is in 18th spot on the widely cited US News & World Report annual university rankings. In a recent Princeton Review survey, US parents elected Notre Dame as one of the five dream schools for their children, alongside Princeton, Stanford, Harvard and Brown University. Notre Dame boasts such famous alumni as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and is one of the 25 so-called 'New Ivies' that are challenging the traditional Ivy League elite universities.
Chinese University students should make the best use of such exchange opportunities. Other universities also provide excellent opportunities. The University of Hong Kong has an exchange partnership with the entire University of California system; Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Many employers have told me that students who have gone abroad for exchange or graduate studies often perform better and demonstrate greater potential. If so, the business sector should try its best to help fund university exchange programmes, to ultimately enable every student, if they so choose, to go overseas for a semester or two.
Our transition to a four-year system should not mean a change to a mass production mode of education, grouping students into large classes all the time. Take Notre Dame again as an example; its 8,730 undergraduates are taught by all of its 1,240-member faculty. Their model is typical small-class teaching usually associated only with small liberal arts colleges. But Notre Dame has managed to become a major university with the characteristics of a close-knit liberal arts college. For our universities to achieve this goal, they would need adequate government funding and generous private donations. One should not forget that top US universities invariably receive donations from alumni and businesses.
It should be noted that our three major universities have already attained excellent standards. In the Times Higher Education Supplement 2007 global university rankings, Hong Kong University was ranked 26th, the University of Science and Technology 39th, and Chinese University 42nd. We have gems in our midst, as former governor Chris Patten said recently in Hong Kong. The government, businesses and the universities should give our students the best education we can afford.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator