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Hong Kong Budget 2013

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah delivered his sixth budget speech on February 27, 2013, in which he unveiled HK$33 billion worth of relief measures and forecasted a surplus of about HK$64.9 billion for the 2012-13 financial year. Economic growth was expected to come in 1.5 to 3.5 per cent in 2013.

CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong tops the class in confused policymaking

Regina Ip says the millions to be spent on overseas education for the few won't meet our need for a cohort of good pre-school teachers, as officials seem to think, or foster depth in talent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 5:02am

In Hong Kong's more recent history, there is no better illustration of bureaucratic myopia and confusion of policy objectives than the government's proposal, announced by the financial secretary in his budget speech in February, to inject HK$480 million into the Government Scholarship Fund to enable outstanding students to pursue degree or teacher-training programmes in prestigious overseas universities, on condition that they come back to teach for at least two years.

Initially, the government insisted that such students must major in English or pre-school education. In the face of criticism about the unduly narrow scope, it conceded that while priority would be given to students majoring in English or education, other fields of study could be considered. Such prevarication has not helped to mitigate criticism from political parties across the political spectrum.

Originally put forward by the New People's Party, the idea was to expand funding for overseas scholarships to help Hong Kong build a sizeable pool of top-notch talent with global vision, and to enable gifted students with limited means to have access to the world's best universities.

Those who have studied overseas in recent years would have discovered that the limited places for talented Asian students in top universities overseas are increasingly filled by mainland Chinese, Korean and Singaporean students, with the latter in particular taking up a share disproportionate to the size of its population. Talented students from Singapore are helped by their country's deep pool of funding for overseas studies, with the Public Service Commission alone providing 50 to 70 overseas scholarships for undergraduates per year.

As a recent article in The Economist points out, with the global economy increasingly dominated by innovative companies which run on "economies of ideas" rather than "economies of scale", companies or organisations serious about continuing to succeed must have a strategy to nurture or attract the best and brightest. Neglect of the need to formulate such a strategy is bound to weaken competitiveness in the long term, especially for a city like Hong Kong which has always relied on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its people.

Those who have studied in Ivy League universities or its peer institutions would have noticed that not only are places for Hong Kong students increasingly limited (with Hong Kong being subsumed under the Greater China quota), such places are being filled increasingly by Hong Kong students who have studied at international or English Schools Foundation schools in Hong Kong, or prestigious boarding schools in the US or England. In other words, places are being filled by local students from privileged families. Aspiring, bright students from poorer families who have the grades but are strapped for cash can only languish at the Ivy gates.

An expansion of government funding for overseas scholarships would help redistribute opportunities for study at these prestigious universities and enable upward mobility. Such a programme is not designed to help lift the educational level of the masses, but would meet a crying need from bright students from poor families who yearn for opportunities to excel.

To advocate such a programme for the gifted is not to deny the equally urgent need to expand access to high-quality education for the masses. And the accent must be on quality.

Hong Kong has moved at a snail's pace to increase free, compulsory education to 12 years, commencing in 2008, almost 30 years after it started to provide nine years' free education in 1979. The government now faces another challenge in meeting demand to extend free education to 15 years, covering the pre-school years. As always with mass education, the hardest part lies in ensuring that quantity is not provided at the expense of quality.

It is easy for politicians to support demand for free, pre-school education. But many complex issues remain unresolved. For example, if the public sector is to encompass the entire pre-school category, the government must decide whether funding arrangements should mirror the primary and secondary sectors, with some kindergartens becoming fully publicly funded, and others receiving partial aid. The wide variation of standards, including the disparity in the quality of pre-school teachers, poses many tricky issues.

For different purposes, different educational programmes need to be designed. To provide free, quality pre-school education, the government needs to do a lot more than provide 20-odd scholarships for overseas studies. To avoid repeating its past mistakes in education reform, the government must ensure that suitably trained individuals with a true passion for pre-school teaching are employed, or public funds would be wasted.

We need large numbers of properly trained pre-school teachers, but above all, we need truly good, dedicated ones. Using the overseas scholarship proposal to pretend that public funds are being expended to achieve this goal is not only bureaucratic folly, but also a weak ploy to pull the wool over the people's eyes. It's a policy that is doomed to fail but to which our leaders in education seem to have turned a blind eye.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party


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This article is now closed to comments

About the only aspect of government where Regina Ip can claim to be an expert is "confused policymaking." She was excelling in this before she got the boot due to her Article 23 nonsense.
Singapore has sent top students to top UK and US Universities on Scholarship for decades. It works mainly because the government is able to enforce. If you do not return after graduation to work out your contract, or try to get out of it, you could lose your passport. How will the Hong Kong government enforce the repayment scheme? Any high profile objection by a returning graduate is sure to attract all the politicians trying to make some capital of the case.
This how Singapore always gets things done including scholarships for overseas studies. Here, they mostly get stalled and compromised in the hot air from highly paid politicians in LEGCO. You wonder whether we are paying them to obstruct or help govern.
For dynamo: What do you mean by 'HK Govt could care less about the cost of education for non Cantonese speaking kids'. What has the education of non Cantonese speaking kids got to do with this policy and Regina Ip's comments?
The real confusion is why a Financial Secretary’s duty to be a policy maker in education? And why is the FS subsequently being criticized and not the Education Minister? What is the real role of Financial Secretary? What qualification in this case does John Tsang have over the Education Minister to be criticized for a policy in education? Hong Kong needs to reform its government structure. Regina Ip, once an insider of government structure is trapped and acquiescent in a confusing role played by an outdated post. I as an outsider see differently: a purse person shouldn’t be omnipotent – but let him/she just makes most sure what amount comes out of the purse is correct.
Why is this BS appearing in SCMP instead of a local chinese newspaper?
All she talks about refers to local children and their free education. HK Govt could care less about the cost of education for non Cantonese speaking kids.
HK people seem to have very short memories of the woman they drove out of Government in 2003 with ½ million people taking to the streets against Article 23 which she was stubbornly driving in return for her $290k a month ++.
“'When she apologised for her promotion of the national security law, she was actually talking about her handling of the matter, not the contents of the controversial bill,' says Chong, who is now chairman of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.”
Yet in her article today this Born-Again Democrat hypocritically slams 'bureaucratic myopia'.
"Are you seriously telling me that taxi drivers, restaurant waiters and workers at McDonald's will want to discuss these proposals with me? A draft bill is for the experts" -Regina Ip dismissing pleas for the government to give the public more time to digest Article 23 proposals, at Legislative Council, September 26, 2002
"Hitler came to power by democratic election, and he killed seven million Jews. One-person, one-vote is no panacea." --Regina Ip defending the lack of democracy in China, at a forum on Article 23 at City University of Hong Kong, October 28, 2002
I support education as a right for every child. Here Hong Kong is a late starter. It was late to provide free and compulsory education from primary one to form six and is still late likewise to include the preschool and kindergarten. That is when Hong Kong government for years have had budget surplus. Not that government is indifference in education, it has long engaged in elitism education paying more attention how to exclude than include education for all. The government as well as the citizens is entangled in ball of wax forever fighting over budget and power. Putting all these aside, I still support the last education breakthrough in setting up scholarship for students to study abroad with stipulation to return to teach. Hong Kong needs global exposure even for its school children and a teacher from abroad or a returnee surely can do a better job.


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