Must do better

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2011, 12:00am

Last year, the Audit Commission criticised the majority of Direct Subsidy Scheme schools for their management and regulatory problems, including chaotic accounting practices that led them to overestimate deficits and underestimate reserves. The Education Bureau is undoubtedly responsible for failing to regulate these schools, as a recent investigation by the Legislative Council's Public Accounts Committee concluded.

The report, which focused on the schools' governance, censured the bureau for its neglect of duty, and one committee member said Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung's remark that he was powerless to ensure the schools comply with disclosure rules was 'unacceptable' and 'very regrettable'.

The fact that the problems of financial malpractice were allowed to fester means that the bureau, under Suen's watch, has failed to monitor the sector and properly run the Direct Subsidy Scheme. The scheme aims to provide resources for schools to develop an all-round education for children, by allowing the schools the flexibility to set their own curriculum. This good system has gone to waste because of Suen's neglect of duty.

The report also criticised some DSS schools for stifling the chances of grass-roots children to study at the schools by failing to provide scholarships and financial assistance, as stipulated by the government, to ensure equal access.

The Public Accounts Committee has long been a pro-establishment stronghold and it's rare for it to be so critical of officials. In this case, Suen should be held responsible for the success and failure of the policies implemented by his bureau.

Suen, regarded as one of the governing elites during the colonial era, is known for his slick moves in dealing with difficult policies and policy blunders. He is the person the government turns to whenever there is a mess to clean up.

After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's policy to provide 85,000 flats each year to curb soaring housing prices inadvertently caused property prices to collapse. Suen, who became secretary for housing in 2002, famously introduced nine measures to alleviate the problem. They included halting the construction and sale of government-subsidised flats and suspending government land sales. The measures might have stabilised the market by limiting land supply, but they also strengthened the position of private developers, allowing them to further monopolise the market.

As a result, we now face a pressing problem of a shortage of affordable private housing; soaring prices have put housing out of reach for many ordinary Hongkongers. It shows Suen lacked foresight in dealing with the city's housing issues; he didn't tackle the root of the problem.

He made a grave error by selling government-subsidised housing blocks on the cheap. In what was perceived as a case of transferring benefits to big property developers, the sale of Hunghom Peninsula caused public outrage because the price paid by the developer was exceptionally low. But Suen didn't seem to have learned from this, and was later caught up in another scandal, this time over a bonus land grant to Henderson Land.

Now, as the principal official in charge of the education portfolio, Suen still hasn't changed his style; he is not interested in long-term planning. What he does resembles putting bandages over problems without really fixing them.

For example, with a declining student population, this would have been the perfect time to introduce small-class teaching to improve the quality of education. But, instead of putting more resources into education, Suen took the opposite path of closing down schools to save resources.

Investing in education is vital to ensure Hong Kong's competitiveness and long-term survival. Suen should move with the times and treat education as an investment in human capital. Without investing in our future generations, society as a whole will suffer. We should not allow Suen to ruin our future.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator