In order to facilitate internet learning for students from low-income families, the government launched a HK$220million programme. The five-year Internet Learning Support Programme, which was introduced in the 2010 budget and rolled out last July, planned to help students acquire affordable computers and internet access.
It initially targeted to help 20,000 families in the first year. But, so far, it has served only 9,000 families, fewer than half the target.
Up to February this year, some 39,000 families had applied for the subsidy, though not all are eligible.
According to the deputy government chief information officer Joey Lam Kam-ping, the original target might have been too aggressive. In other words, she believes the goal was over the top and impractical.
She explained that, due to privacy reasons, the two non-profit organisations engaged by the government to implement the programme cannot have direct access to information related to these needy families and students. And, as a result, the organisations have to seek out these families themselves.
Another problem, she said, is that many parents do not know much about the programme, and thus the response has been relatively lukewarm.
The Internet Learning Support Programme is only part of the government's plan to help needy students get internet access. Low-income families are also offered a subsidy of HK$1,300, or a half-subsidy of HK$650.
But the way it has been disbursed has been problematic: the cash subsidy is given to the family with hardly any follow-up.
It would be understandable if the majority chose to use the extra cash for other expenses rather than on internet services for their children. In other words, the fund, originally allocated to facilitate internet learning, is open to misuse.
The government should have issued cash coupons instead of a cash subsidy. That way, the coupons could only be used on the programme. And with a more proactive city-wide publicity campaign, more students would have benefited.
The internet programme has many attractive components. Besides the cash subsidy, there are many economical service deals. For example, for HK$250 a year, each student can receive a netbook and enjoy internet access.
We are in an era that emphasises a knowledge-based economy. The success of individuals, organisations and society at large are all defined by how technologically savvy we are.
To address the wealth gap, we must also mitigate the impact of the digital divide between the rich and the poor and allow the underprivileged to have access to technological advances to improve the quality of learning and raise their competitiveness. Providing equal opportunities for all helps promote social harmony and prosperity, and boosts social capital for the sake of us all.
The next administration, headed by Leung Chun-ying, must take the lead to improve the programme in order to bring true benefits to help students who are genuinely in need.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org