The shoddy state of education

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 May, 1994, 12:00am

MR Peter Whyte's letter (South China Morning Post, April 28) on the ills of tertiary education was right in general and particular.

Long though it was, it could have profitably filled several more columns.

I will concentrate on just one aspect, the method of ''performance and output based funding'' that the University and Polytechnics Grants Committee is moving towards.

Though not yet instituted, it is already calling the tune in the tertiary education sector.

Selective funding for performance has to be based on visibles, that is, goods that can be put into the shop window.

Since they all want more money, not less, the universities compete to produce visibles; they put pressure on staff to publish more, hold more conferences, get more degrees, set up more centres and research institutes.

The shop windows do fill with goods, but while the packaging is eye-catching, the contents are increasingly shoddy, and, as we have seen, in some cases counterfeit.

What cannot be put in the shop windows slips down the scale of priorities, and chief among these casualties is education. Even the meaning of education is less and less understood, by both staff and students, though lip-service is still occasionally paid to it.

The proper purpose of the universities is to preserve and expand the sum of human knowledge and wisdom and, in their teaching role, demonstrate and pass on the love of learning.

To fulfil that role obviously requires dedication, but the ethics of big business to which the universities are being converted do not allow for dedication, only the pursuit of personal advancement.

It is easy enough for academics to satisfy teaching requirements by setting mechanical tasks; indeed they can make themselves popular with students by doing so, for with so many students doing part-time jobs it would be impossible for them to give much thought to their courses.

The result is, to refer to just one matter of current concern, that students graduating from English departments are unknowingly committing appalling errors in English grammar and usage because none of their succession of teachers over the years has bothered to correct their mistakes. As long as they can learn enough jargon to answer some examination questions, who cares whether they are literate or not? Such caring would come under education, and education is ceasing to be anybody's business.

There is no mystery about the source of the ills in tertiary education in Hong Kong or anywhere else. It is the neglect of education and the pursuit of superficialities. Nor is there any mystery about who is encouraging this trend.