As an alumni of the University of Melbourne, I recently received a message from its vice-chancellor, Professor Glyn Davies, about something called "A smarter Australia" that is very relevant to Hong Kong. This major initiative by Australian universities recognises their key role in the nation's future prosperity, and calls for community support to persuade the federal government to invest in higher education.
Australia is certainly rich in natural resources, but international education is Australia's largest export earner after resources. It has a population of only 23 million, 0.3 per cent of the world's population, yet contributes to over 3 per cent of world scientific research output. Universities believe that the strongest nations are those investing in minds - by driving skills, science and research at universities. This can help diversify and revitalise the economy and build new industries to strengthen society.
Under the plan, no one would be deprived of the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education in Australia, whether it be at a university or technical college, with a wide range of courses, from horticulture to aerospace engineering. There would also be more opportunities for transfer within and between the universities and colleges. The aim is for all graduates to be paid a salary that enables them to have a decent life.
Students would receive career talks and work experience from the equivalent of Form 4 on, to give them a proper understanding of their strengths and enable them to be well prepared when it comes to choosing which subjects to study for their career path. This approach nurtures talent and develops lifetime skills.
Australian children may not always excel in international maths exams, for example, but the nation has still produced 13 Nobel prize winners.
It's clear that there is much here we can learn, and build a smarter Hong Kong.
Our proportion of funding for research has been slipping behind that of our neighbours and OECD countries. The proportion of young people receiving government-funded university education still stands at 18 per cent, compared to 27 per cent in Singapore, where the aim is to achieve 40 per cent in the next decade. Enhancing the skills and productivity of our population is essential to mitigate the pressure from an ageing population and a reduction in the size of our labour force. Yet, this year's disappointing budget gives us little hope of achieving that.
The one-off relief measures and tax reductions offer some comfort to those in need and certainly offer the middle class a rare sense of satisfaction. Even more important, though, is to empower people to make them more productive. Large numbers are enrolling for the associate degree programme (more than 30,000 - twice as many as government-funded places) to improve themselves at their own expense. But these 30,000 have been ignored in the budget.
Instead, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced a proposal to put aside HK$480 million for overseas scholarships for 20 students, who must undertake to teach in Hong Kong on graduation. In fact, many scholarships are available locally and internationally to attract talented students. If the government cares so much about teaching quality, it should consider providing leave for teachers to receive short-term local or overseas training. That could prove more beneficial to the teaching community.
It is vital for Hong Kong's sustainability and development to diversify post-secondary student training and education, and invest in our future by providing more support to the sector. The associate degree qualification should be appropriately accredited and recognised by the community. The curriculum and choice of subjects should be more attuned to the needs of the community.
On the other hand, the injection of HK$15 billion into the Community Care Fund provides flexibility in providing support to those in need. However, its effectiveness must be constantly evaluated.
Given the budget surplus over the past few years, we could learn another lesson from Australia: consider introducing a means-tested pension scheme that takes care of and supports the vulnerable.
The Hong Kong government is rich in resources, but lacks ideas and innovation. The latest budget again misses the opportunity to improve our competitiveness. Our young people can't afford to wait much longer. Without the appropriate education and training, they will very likely be at a disadvantage throughout their lifetime.
The government has to work harder and better understand the needs of the community. Many Hongkongers have to work very hard every day just to make ends meet. They need to drink coffee to keep awake in order to get through their long working days, rather than enjoying a leisurely latte on a Saturday afternoon. We deserve something better.
Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong