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