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Carrie Lam

Why Carrie Lam’s HK$30,000 subsidy may hurt the quality of higher education in Hong Kong

Albert Cheng calls for the subsidy programme to be extended to Hong Kong’s eight UGC-funded tertiary institutions, so that eligible students are not forced to place financial ability above programme quality

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2017, 7:17pm

Ever since Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced she would run for Hong Kong chief executive, she has pledged to heal divisions and restore harmony in society. As soon as she assumed office, she presented a friendly face and positive attitude in seeking to alleviate people’s hardship. However, to rebuild government credibility and win hearts, the short cut is always to splash the cash.

On July 5, the government announced a HK$3.6 billion package to address resource issues in the education sector and enhance quality. This includes creating about 2,000 new full-time teaching posts and an annual subsidy of HK$30,000 for students in Hong Kong pursuing full-time locally accredited self-financed undergraduate degrees, if they meet the entry requirements or have completed relevant sub-degree programmes. No means test is required. The funding was passed by the Finance Committee on July 19.

It would appear that Lam has fulfilled one of her election promises and the new subsidy will ease the financial burden of some students. However, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the detail. It is surprising to see some pro-democratic lawmakers, Ip Kin-yuen from the education sector in particular, supporting the new budget without looking closely at the scheme. They were, it seems, blinded by the government’s “big reconciliation” – which isn’t about solving problems, but is designed only for Lam’s political benefit.

Watch: Carrie Lam begins her term as Hong Kong’s top leader

When the new education measures were still in the pipeline, Lam failed to consult relevant stakeholders. The government turned down a proposed meeting by the Federation for Self-financing Tertiary Education, which comprises the eight tertiary institutions and other major non-profit-making institutions. Opinions from the industry were neglected.

Why is a vote on increased Hong Kong education funding so important?

The new measure provides a subsidy only to self-financing local programmes that are not offered by the eight tertiary institutions. Thus, eligible students will apply for the subsidised programmes, possibly marginalising and undermining the better-quality programmes offered by the tertiary institutions. Students will be forced to choose according to financial ability rather than programme quality, and some may end up with a degree in a subject not of their choosing.

Subsidising substandard programmes [is] effectively forcing students to accept poor-quality education

Students who have obtained the necessary Diploma of Secondary Education examination results but are not able to go to the UGC-funded universities can pursue a different path: they can apply for publicly funded sub-degree or accredited self-financing sub-degree programmes, accredited self-financing top-up degree programmes, as well as others offered by private institutions. Before the subsidy scheme, public and private institutions competed fairly, with better-quality programmes attracting more students.

Now, the situation will become skewed. This is a misallocation of resources and the outcome is unfair. It could be said that students’ choices are being limited.

The measure is not going to help the government to achieve its objective, set in 2000, of raising the tertiary-educated population to 60 per cent. The programmes offered by the eight institutions have evolved and improved over the past 15 years. A solid foundation has been laid and some programmes have gained a fine reputation. The institutions themselves could make higher education more popular in Hong Kong.

Will Carrie Lam’s education subsidies improve the careers of Hong Kong students?

However, Lam’s subsidy risks dragging down the development of tertiary education. It fails to reward the educators dedicated to designing and offering good-quality courses. It is ridiculous that the government is subsidising substandard programmes, and effectively forcing students to accept poor-quality education.

As the measure has already been passed, the only remedy would be for the government to set a transitional period and extend the subsidy to programmes offered by the eight tertiary institutions.

Through fair market competition, institutions will be driven to provide better-quality programmes. Education policies should be based on what will benefit our students the most; a misallocation of resources will not lead us anywhere. If Carrie Lam keeps neglecting views from stakeholders and implements measures without proper consultation, it won’t just be education that suffers in Hong Kong.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk