Reflections: nurturing creative talent is key to Hong Kong's future
Much has been written about the onslaught of mainland visitors in Hong Kong: in shopping malls, MTR trains, kindergartens and primary schools, particularly those near the border. For years they have had a large presence at local universities.
Many of the mainland's brightest students have snapped up scholarships for undergraduate studies here.
In 2012-13, mainland students made up 1,615 of the 2,407 students admitted into publicly funded graduate programmes, Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim said in a recent reply to questions from legislators.
Some 531 locals were admitted, the remainder being students from other places. Unlike self-funded master's programmes like MBAs, EMBAs, or in popular areas such as finance or marketing, the publicly funded Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and doctoral programmes are research-oriented, and aimed at nurturing innovators, researchers and thinkers.
There is no quota on people from outside Hong Kong doing research graduate degrees here; this is in line with international practice and intended to attract the best talent worldwide.
Attracting talented students to come and investigate worthy topics is no doubt of great value. Imposing a ceiling on foreign students will only undermine the quality or diversity of research carried out locally.
But a matter of concern is the low level of interest shown among local students for advanced studies. Only about 500 out of 15,000 university graduates pursued that path in 2012-13. It is not that we lack a culture of lifelong learning - the purpose of a major government drive in the early 2000s; indeed, far more students are doing part-time, professionally oriented master's degrees in the evening, dragging their exhausted bodies to campuses after work.
Obviously, many are studying for the purpose of career advancement rather than exploring academic disciplines like science or humanities.
That may have to do with the limited atmosphere of intellectualism in the city. Chan Kwok-bun, a former academic at Baptist University, who is an adjunct sociology professor at the University of Macau, said: "One obvious real threat to intellectualism is commercialism and capitalism, of which intellectuals are supposed to be critics though many end up being apologists.
"Many of the political and economic elite insist Hong Kong is a commercial city, an insistence that has deep consequences for our youth, some of whom may have aspirations beyond business, economics, wealth, money, banking, real estate, rentals, finance, etc, and for that matter, law, medicine, MBAs, CEOs," Chan says.
But there may be a much larger pool of hidden talent now than before, with the curriculum reform and the rise of better-equipped schools such as direct subsidy scheme schools and international schools that adopt innovative teaching approaches and follow global issues.
We have reason to expect a new generation of bright minds more inspired by the challenge of learning.
The need for this city to have more innovators and thinkers is more acute in the light of the warnings issued by top officials about the recent drop in the number of mainland tourists in Hong Kong.
Financial Secretary John Tsang Tsun-wah wrote in his blog that a further slump in retail sales (supposedly brought by the fewer number of mainland tourists) would create pressure on the employment market.
Rather than focusing on tourists, it is high time to nurture more talent who can create jobs and other sources of income.
Ng remarked that research is crucial to higher education development and enhancing the competitiveness of an economy.
We can train hundreds or thousands of marketing and business professionals but where do we find smart designs or services with wide appeal? Where are our creators, thinkers, producers of inspiring, thought-provoking literature, or top-notch scientists?
Despite all the talk about developing creative industries in Hong Kong, foreign names attract the most attention. The 1,600 paper pandas expected to draw huge crowds during their tour around Hong Kong are the works of French sculptor Paulo Grangeon.
The giant rubber duck that mesmerised many last summer also came from abroad.