Overseas teaching scholarship scheme not such a bright idea

Kerry Kennedy says the overseas teaching scholarship scheme for students reflects contempt towards Hong Kong's educational institutions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 2:59am

The recent budget contained a provision of HK$480 million a year to send 20 bright Hong Kong students overseas to study early childhood education or English. On the surface, this may seem like an initiative that will make teaching an attractive option for the smartest of Hong Kong's secondary students but is this really the message that will be sent to the community?

Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim confirmed the scholarships were for those students "with an eye on a teaching career". So, rather than show some faith in local teacher education, the government will export the best students to learn about English teaching and kindergartens in Britain, Canada or Australia.

Local institutions are to be deprived of this talent because the government clearly believes future teachers can be better prepared outside Hong Kong.

In seeking to understand this initiative, it is important to realise there are members of the Executive Council who are on the record showing contempt for Hong Kong's teachers and teacher education institutions. This smacks of the same contempt, as much as it reflects a colonial mentality.

Local institutions are perceived as not being good enough, the teachers never measure up, and the result is a policy measure to divert talent overseas. Of course, overseas institutions will be delighted - more direct foreign investment from Hong Kong.

But why shouldn't Hong Kong students get an opportunity to study overseas? There is no doubt they could benefit from the experience, but it will be at the expense of developing a deep understanding of the local context. Preparing future Hong Kong teachers without access to local schools or any understanding of the social and cultural contexts in which these schools are embedded is professional neglect.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the scholarship initiative is that, internationally, Hong Kong schools and teachers have an enviable reputation. Local students' success in international assessments in areas such as maths, science, reading and citizenship is well-known. McKinsey and Company's 2011 report rated Hong Kong as an "excellent " education system using international benchmarks. So, from the outside, Hong Kong's schools, teachers and students are held in high regard - the cultural cringe comes from within.

We need the best students to opt for teaching, and this is where the scholarship initiative got it right. Students are more likely to select medicine, law or business. The issue is how to attract the best and brightest to commit themselves to a key profession that can influence Hong Kong's future development.

So why not local scholarships? This does not mean students will be shielded from overseas experiences, as most local universities offer a wide range of "internationalising" experiences for their students.

Hong Kong needs excellent teachers, but we do not need them to be prepared overseas. We need the best and brightest in Hong Kong, we need them to understand Hong Kong and we need them to be committed to Hong Kong. We go to great lengths to keep infant milk formula in the city - why not our brightest students?

Professor Kerry Kennedy is co-director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education