Funding ends for English campaign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2009, 12:00am

The government has stopped funding a programme that helped office staff learn English, a decade after it was launched because of concerns that Hong Kong's position as an international city was under threat.

Under the Workplace English Campaign, company bosses could receive HK$4,500 per employee to pay for English lessons. But the response was weak, and with other subsidy channels available for skills training, the government decided to end the funding.

Professor Cheng Kai-ming, chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Scolar), a government-appointed advisory body driving the campaign, pointed to the Continuing Education Fund as an example of the overlap.

'The closure of the funding scheme was not due to lack of resources. The availability of subsidies from government separately ... has made it timely [to do so],' he said.

The campaign was launched in 2000 amid concerns that falling English standards among the city's employees could cause Hong Kong to lose its competitive edge over other international cities in Asia, such as Singapore.

Apart from setting a benchmark of minimum acceptable English levels for secretaries, clerks, phone operators, receptionists and other frontline service personnel, the campaign included a HK$50 million Funding Scheme for Workplace English Training. Its purpose was to sponsor individual employees to study English and to sit certain benchmark examinations.

Each employee could receive up to HK$4,550, which covers half of the training costs and examination fees.

From 2005, employers could receive subsidies for organising tailor-made, in-house courses at a maximum of HK$3,000 per employee trained. Cheng said the funding scheme was changed to support companies organising such courses, but the demand was low.

'Scolar therefore decided in 2008 to terminate the funding scheme by giving one year's notice,' Cheng said.

Even so, public education and publicity efforts would continue, he said. These include self-learning materials, workshops and seminars. A series of videos, featuring celebrities and Legislative Council members demonstrating the correct use of English in everyday scenarios, was produced.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, Scolar's previous chairman, said the publicity materials and public education efforts had been effective in encouraging employees to learn English. He said these should be the focus of the campaign.

'Every time a celebrity appeared [in a publicity programme] to promote workplace English, the number of people taking English courses increased,' he said.

A spokeswoman for Scolar said more than 30,000 employees had benefited from the funding scheme, and another 670 were studying English with the sponsorship.

'The remaining balance of the scheme will be about HK$700,000,' she said.

But Tien said more resources should be provided through the Continuing Education Fund to enable a greater number of employees to learn English.