Learning English can be a parental obsession, a student's headache and a businessman's opportunity. Adverts strongly hint that Hong Kong students must have English to move ahead, yet the business and education sectors still complain about low standards. Naturally, both the government and the public are concerned.
In his budget speech, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced government plans to set aside HK$480 million for students receiving overseas training in English at college level.
From what we know, these are scholarships for top-notch middle school leavers who, after completing their education abroad, have to commit for two years to working for Hong Kong, presumably teaching English at the secondary level.
The targeted students are those who attend Ivy League schools, "Oxbridge" and other top schools in the English-speaking world. But why must they go to these universities?
Although Yale's English department is arguably the best, going to Yale is costly. There are plenty of other English departments that are good and cost a lot less. And if they need not be English majors, the field of candidates is even wider.
Just because they go to the best schools, does it mean they will bring back the best training? And how effective will this programme be if they teach for two years and shoot for more lucrative jobs after that? If the newly trained teacher commits for two years and then leaves, how much good will it do the school? The remaining English teachers will probably have to take up their "legacy", a task for which they may not be entirely capable.
Despite Hong Kong employers' love of big-name schools, my experience is that you don't need to study with E.B. White at Cornell. It depends on how hard you work, how willing you are to mingle with the locals, and so on. Having gone to a private liberal arts college for four years, and seeing many who went to North America but did not come back a "good English person", I came to the conclusion long ago that it didn't take a big name, but a big attitude, to train yourself.
As for leaving an impact on students or lifting our secondary standard as a whole, it takes a very long time to do that. You can't do it with a handful of starters who might find it hard to fit into our school system.
Come to think of it, it's embarrassing for our local universities; if their English departments were competent, we wouldn't need to send students out for training, would we? Am I being too hard on the government, or am I being cruel to our professors?
Ronald Teng is the founder of Millennium Education Associates, a promoter of liberal arts education