Beyond numbers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am


For many educationalists and professors, it was very discouraging to read the headline of a recent commentary in this paper, 'The last thing Hong Kong needs is more education'.

Why is more education a bad thing? There seem to be two sceptical views: first, education costs money and academics and teachers only keep on saying, 'Gimme more money'; second, education does not help the real world.

While money does not work miracles (as the saying goes, any problem that money can solve is not a problem), it is a necessary ingredient of many solutions to our problems. Without money, many poor countries and rural communities simply cannot provide basic education to improve literacy and promote life skills, never mind consider the quality of education. Unesco, the UN cultural organisation, calls on all governments to invest in education, to provide 'education for all'.

Having said that, education should not be seen as just an investment business in the sense that we look for money indicators to measure performance - for example, if we invest so much in a law degree student, how much will he or she earn upon graduation - as if justice can be measured by earnings.

Yet, time and time again, universities in Hong Kong are coerced into informing the media (and parents and employers) how much their graduates are earning, as though this reflects the quality of the teaching and the value of education.

Our schools have for too long been driven by an examination culture. If the whole purpose of our school system is to prepare a percentage of the students for entry to higher studies, then its value would be defined by the number of A-grades its students get in examinations or how many of them enter universities, the value of which are in turn defined by league tables and so-called world rankings.

I am not suggesting such indicators are irrelevant, but that we should look beyond them.

Much of the concern about education is often expressed in market terms, questioning whether education brings financial benefits. On the other hand, people see education funding as a social investment, and believe the government should provide more money. If policymakers and stakeholders look at education mainly from such perspectives, we cannot blame students for their consumerist or utilitarian understanding of what education is for (to get a better-paid job, to get back what they have 'invested' in tuition fees and other expenses).

Under the current world trend to see education as a commodity, higher education is in danger of turning into a diploma mill. This will breed a vicious cycle, with people chasing money and qualifications. Meanwhile, the core values of education are easily forgotten in the name of the search for excellence - 'hollow excellence' or 'excellence without a soul', in the words of Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College.

An institute of learning is not determined by its hardware but by the quality and commitment of its scholars and teachers - the software and 'heartware'. When Ch'ien Mu and his fellow intellectuals founded New Asia College in 1950, they ran a place of learning under very unfavourable physical and financial conditions, and yet they groomed some of the finest graduates of the times.

Programme marketing nowadays places too much emphasis on the benefits and welfare available to students - scholarships, grants, hostels, job prospects and earnings, for example - which might induce a distorted sense of education among our youngsters.

Without playing down the importance of modern universities in human-capital formation and in leading to new knowledge that lifts human productivity, it is time to seriously reflect on the mission of a university. Do we only go for the numbers game (grant numbers, citation numbers) and international rankings?

Or do we care more about the grooming of our new generation to be active and responsible citizens who seek purpose in life in what they study, learn not just for the sake of earning, and are ready to serve the community? Do we want them to be able to display imagination and creativity unbounded by conventional wisdom and mainstream thinking?

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank. He is also president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education