• Tue
  • Sep 16, 2014
  • Updated: 6:45am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Is Hong Kong dumbing down its education system?

Regina Ip wonders whether, in its focus on education for the masses, Hong Kong has compromised on quality, thus neglecting a key goal of learning - the pursuit of excellence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am

Education, a key area in the chief executive's annual policy address, was rated poorly last year but received much higher scores this year. The outcome is hardly surprising, considering that the chief executive has left no stone unturned to mete out relief in response to demands tabled by interest groups in the legislature in recent years.

Even the harshest critics could not accuse the government of turning a deaf ear. From kindergartens to primary schools, from bright high school students aspiring to study abroad to "grass-roots students", from undergraduates enrolled in associate degree programmes to those admitted to universities on the mainland, the government ensured there was something for everyone.

Yet it skirted the most critical issues confronting thinking parents, teachers and students. In the government's drive to spread education to the masses, has it achieved mass education at the expense of quality? Is it possible now to turn back the tide and reverse the downturn towards defeatism and mediocrity?

The decline in English standards of local graduates is well known to be a source of frequent complaints by employers. Less well known to expatriate employers, but even more worrying to the local community, is the decline in standards of written Chinese, ever since the banishment of classical Chinese texts as compulsory reading for examination after the turn of the century.

Since then, secondary-school leavers are tested only on their ability to read, write, listen and speak Cantonese (a mere dialect). The decline in the standard of written Chinese has aroused such widespread concern that the authorities had to agree to reintroduce some classical Chinese and literary texts into the Chinese curriculum for examination in 2015.

Even less well known to the public is the fact that, since 1994, as the result of progressive curriculum reforms implemented by the education authorities, the standards of the mathematics curriculum for our high school students have been steadily dumbed down.

It's not only maths teachers who complain about the decline in standards, especially since the introduction of the core maths subject for senior secondary school students in 2009. Engineering and computer science professors at local universities also say it is hard to train undergraduates who have passed the core maths subject but lack training in advanced trigonometry, vectors and calculus.

It is also debatable whether the supposedly more broad-based, compulsory liberal studies subject, the centrepiece of the new senior secondary school curriculum pushed by the Education Bureau and its chorus of theorists, has really helped to equip our high school students with the necessary knowledge and analytical ability to deal with the many complex issues of modern society.

It is questionable whether "self and personal development", one of the key components of the subject, is better taught in the classroom as an academic subject or as part of a student's extracurricular, character-building activities.

Also, with the compulsory study of China's complex history reduced to a single module of "Modern China" in liberal studies, critics have pointed out that the sum total of students' knowledge of the history of China has been greatly reduced, so that it is impossible for most to see the many trials and tribulations of modern China in context.

Defenders argue that many schools still teach Chinese history as a separate subject, but the hard fact is that a decreasing percentage of students are taking this subject. Last year, the number taking Chinese history as an exam subject dropped to 7,705, or 10.8 per cent of the total, while those taking Chinese literature dropped to 2,813, or 3.94 per cent of the total. Those taking history (that is, world history) dropped to 6,676, or 9.37 per cent of the total, and English literature numbers fell to a pitiable 417, or 0.59 per cent of the total.

The decline in the number of students taking these basic arts and science subjects inevitably translates into lower intakes of undergraduates in these disciplines at local universities.

The diminution of high school students' knowledge of the West is no less disconcerting than their dwindling knowledge of China's history, literature and cultural heritage. Our quest for a transition into a democratic system is not helped when our young people's knowledge of the world and the Western democratic tradition is skin-deep.

Perhaps motivated by the same anxiety about the dumbing down of academic standards and what it bodes for a nation's future, the British government announced in 2012 an ambitious overhaul of the examination system and curriculum reform to beef up standards in traditional academic disciplines such as English, maths and science.

In casting doubt on the UK's reform, some educationists in Hong Kong claim credit for narrowing the academic gap between our most and least able students. Yet what credit can one really claim if the narrowing is the result of progressive dumbing down of the general standards of achievement? The dumb ones do not get smarter, but the smart students are dumbed down.

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

Why does the SCMP continue to give valuable column space to this shallow-thinking, would-be populist loud mouth? Her rantings are assertive, lacking any basis in fact or moral, rational consistency. Her latest groundless tirade against the 'dumbing down' of HK education is typical of her rambling incoherent posturing.
In a free society even the academically challenged have a right to a view but leave them to voice their ignorance and prejudice on street corners. Hey there SCMP, there are intelligent people out there with something to say. Give them the column space and spare us this miserable bigotry.
HK's apathy to expanding access to high quality education is shocking really, particularly since it is considered a wealthy city with plenty of reserves. If HK doesn't invest in human capital, all these apartments and shopping malls for tourists are meaningless.
At kindergarten, primary and secondary stages, there is artificial scarcity created to the extent anything sells and there is waiting line for everything irrespective of quality (seems like scarcity of bread in communist USSR). And, it is really not that high quality except for a few selected schools.
I regularly meet university students (the top 3 universities here). Am surprised (in a bad way) at the low skills and poor ambition, not to mention at the shockingly poor English. The writing is in the wall - if you don't fix this now, the society builders with children will not live here. That will be sad and oft-told story in the future how greed and lack of strength stopped HK from making the transition it needed.
The dumbing down of education worldwide is probably now unstoppable. Decadence in the education industry has permitted vested interests to turn the world's greatest universities into commercially driven pursuit of profit centres with plenty of lucrative jobs for the Dons... now not much cleverer than yesterday's "boys". And then we have the late departed Steve J, the man we have to thank for all the i-things students love to stroke incessantly with their "sharing", instead of reading a decent book.
In former times, if you had an Honours degree from one of your country's handful of top universities, you were considered "well read". Nowadays the most these graduates can claim to be is "well-Googled" or "well-shared".
RI’s complains about Hong Kong education system is very detailed in particulars. The main complain however is about if Hong Kong has been dumping down of its education system by mass education. The particulars verse the system.
Hong Kong education system has made a sea change in 2004. Some schools switched from the 5-year School Certificate Examination to Diploma of Secondary Education which latter links to also a sea change of local universities from a traditional of a 3-year curriculum to a 4-year one. However, the total number of education years to achieve a university degree is the same of 10 years.
RI’s complains in the particulars must be seen in the context of such sea change in the education system. Students are now of two categories – those senior-high graduates and those who advance further to become university graduates. Here we must debate if the added one year to otherwise a 5-year secondary school and a 3-year university study respectively are better. We have passed such debate and if any guide that the 4-year university system as practiced in the US are regarded as best in the world.
In the particulars, Courses like calculus, applied and pure mathematics use to be learned for preparing for an examination for university entry of no certainty. Even in university those courses in the US are either required or elective depending on one’s intended major. The Hong Kong universities must adjust fully to take on the new 4-year curriculum and stop complaining but take on the teaching what are needed but not taught in Senior and Junior High curriculum.
What RI should really complain about is the dumping down of education of the talented – in science and arts alike. These talented students are now scattered in all our schools unrecognized but burdened to take on what normal curriculum must offer and learn. Hong Kong is still lacking schools for the talented. This oversight is wrought in Hong Kong’s elite education system by not recognizing the individual but dividing the students through examinations into three bands nowadays which use to be of five bands. Hong Kong is still dumping down its talented really.
I expect RI would take up the task to involve in instituting schools for the talented in Hong Kong. She needs not to wait till she becomes the CE.

I agree that quality and focus are the key, not quantity. Too many "JACK OF ALL TRADES, MASTER OF NONE" are no good at all! I belong to the generation who regarded themselves (even at the schooling age of Primary 6), the little guinea pigs who were being experimented to help the education 'experts' find out the best education regime to suit all. Never forget my first public exam at Primary 6, assessment at Form 3 to secure a place to stay at the same grammar school since Form 1, HKCEE at Form 5, and my decision not to follow the normal routes to access the local higher education. However, I still prefer the old system when the three core subjects were being taught at schools, except public exams as too many. At least the old one had sailed me through and helped me found my intellectual potential whether in arts or sciences. I liked both but decided to chose the latter. The current system over-burdens the students too much, and deflects too much from the traditional subjects which equip students the life skills - Be literate in Chinese and English up to a reasonable level and be numeric, as the bear minimum. I believe pushing too much too early before even the foundation is firmly established has been the fundamental problem causing the mediocre outcomes. I believe one will shine when one is doing what he/she is really good at. Set the students free so that they can release their true potentials; this shall only be good for both the individuals and the society.
YSCJ, you make me laugh but equally worrying if your views represent the majority of the literate crowd of HK. So according to your views, as Cantonese isn't widely spoken outside HK (please justify this claim!), do you also mean it doesn't hurt for Cantonese to give up their cultural heritage, to be a second-class citizen of the PRC as long as this brings economical benefits? Put this in perspective, if you were a native Putonghua speaker, based on your argument, it must be okay if you were told to give up Putonghua, as English is the global language. Who told you this, how about Spanish ? Have you read the relevant quotations at the Bureau before responding to my comments? The issue is not tri-lingualism, it is the demotion of Cantonese in the mainstream schools, a politically motivated one perhaps. What colonial master you refer to, is it the British or PRC one?? Isn't it already enough to be a foreign country colony in the past. You may think HK is okay to be a colony of the PRC unless you're one of the sort who believe they are the new colonial masters at the background? If you are a HK born Chinese, shame on you! If I was a foreigner in the West, I would look you down as you don't show respect to your own culture and heritage, so willing to give them away by exercising pragmatism for personal gains (economical/foreign passport) - one of the so-called HK spirits embraced by most of the colonial elites in the past. These 'elites' are no difference to prostitutes.
Dialect or not, Cantonese is not the language of wider communication outside of Hong Kong. It does not hurt for Cantonese speakers to learn the national language, and for that matter, English as the global language. These languages are not mutually exclusive for the learner. We should take advantage of our being a Chinese SAR and former British Crown Colony to acquire a good command of Chinese and English, to which we already have considerable exposure. It is not only so we can reap the economic benefits of a truly bilingual/ trilingual communicator. More importantly, learning the language well enables us to understand the culture of its speakers. Understanding is we need before we can be true admirers or better still, critics.
There is no love-hate relationship between local Chinese and their colonial masters. Regina is quite right that our knowledge of the West, and Great Britain, is skin deep. Why should the colonial government over-educate the natives? Better for the Chinese to be loyal to their dialect/ language and traditions than to the British Crown, if you were not prepared to give them equal rights (democracy!) and passports.
We cannot afford to be (self-)ghettoized. We are the legitimate inheritors of this international city we call home. We welcome expats from different parts of the world, overseas educated Chinese originally from the mainland included of course, but we don't need them to run our city for us.
"Dialect or not, Cantonese is not the language of wider communication outside of Hong Kong." Cantonese is the first language of about 60% of Guangdong province. It is the default language for all people in the Cantonese-speaking area. Unlike in the past, today you can go to the Chaozhou speaking or Hakka speaking parts of Cantonese and find that many adults speak Cantonese as a 2nd language. That wasn't the case 30 years ago. As the world has gotten more connected, there is now more use of Cantonese in Guangdong province not less. Cantonese is widely understood in Malaysia and spoken by Chinese in Vietnam. The claim that is Cantonese is not used much outside of Hong Kong is unsubstantiated by the evidence.




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