Seven months into her new post as head of the Education Commission, Rosanna Wong Yick-ming speaks with a sense of urgency about Hong Kong's education overhaul. The former head of the scandal-plagued Housing Authority appears ready to steam ahead according to the course charted by the commission under the helm of her predecessor, Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung. After all, she typifies what is called for in Learning for Life, Learning Through Life, the commission's blueprint for reform released last year. Having obtained her doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Davis only in 1997 - juggling studies with her role as executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups - she believes all ages should have the chance to learn. 'You develop better problem-solving skills and wider perspectives on things as you acquire more knowledge. The most important thing is to have the determination and motivation to learn,' Ms Wong says, recalling her own relentless efforts in seeking scholarships for postgraduate study abroad two years after graduating from the University of Hong Kong, and later for a second master's and then doctoral degrees. With increasing globalisation, the need for a better-educated work force has never been more acute for Hong Kong. 'A city's competitive edge is its talent. The whole world is looking for people who can adjust to a changing economy, have problem-solving skills and good language standards,' she said. As the driving force behind reforms in the school, tertiary and continuing education sectors, the Education Commission faces the challenge of changing Hong Kong's culture. Not long ago, local people were less learning-conscious, and doubts still abounded over associate degree schemes when they were launched only last year. Although 5,000 new associate degree places were available this year, the sub-degree market has to grow further, says Ms Wong, to help reach the Government's aim to double the number of people with access to tertiary education to 60 per cent in 10 years. 'Even with that percentage, Hong Kong still lags behind countries such as the US, where 81 per cent of the population have tertiary education,' she says. What also needs to be developed is a quality control mechanism for future courses, whether in the form of a set of regulations to ensure standards, or widened powers for the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation. 'We can't leave it all to the market. Consumers have their rights too.' Much still depends on proposals to be made by a commission working group devoted to shaping the future of continuing education. But Ms Wong believes a culture for life-long learning is being shaped by the increased opportunities for further education, growing diversity of courses, and the Chief Executive's pledge of a $5 billion subsidy for adult learners. Every month, Ms Wong meets commission members, split into various working groups responsible for either mapping out the future for senior secondary education, higher education, school places allocation, or continuing education. The newly adopted system for primary places allocation is one of the earliest changes. Others hinge on working group reports to be submitted next year. School reform has taken precedence over changes in higher education. It could take seven years, Ms Wong cautions, before a four-year university degree appears. Future admission criteria and the structure of secondary education must also be decided first. 'We have seen changes in teaching methods, the promotion of project-based learning and less drilling in schools. You need to give students the chance to learn, to digest and think creatively,' she says of progress made so far. Ms Wong hopes, too, for more public feedback on reforms. Pledging transparency for the commission's work, she said two public forums would be held next year, the first next month. She also has high hopes for the report by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, also due next year. It will address ways to help raise students' English standards so that the SAR can become a 'trilingual and biliterate society'. Ms Wong supports mother-tongue teaching and does not think this would hinder learning English well. Putonghua could be considered to replace Cantonese as the medium of instruction, but not until there is an adequate supply of well trained teachers. A priority for Hong Kong as an international city should be how to enhance students' English. 'We need better methods for learning English, better support for schools and ways to increase people's incentives for learning the language,' says Ms Wong, who is also president of the English-Speaking Union in Hong Kong, officially launched this week to promote English communication. 'When I was growing up, English pop songs were very popular and I always listened to them. The various English words and expressions stayed in my mind,' she recalled, conceding that people now are much less inclined to speak or expose themselves to English as Cantopop dominates the local music scene. Ms Wong is pleased that the Native English-speaking Teachers (NET) programme will be extended to primary schools next year, which will give youngsters the opportunity to interact with foreigners at an earlier age. But it is beyond the scope of the commission to foster an English-speaking environment. Family education has a vital role to play, too. 'Children can learn two languages at the same time easily. I am just worried that they do not read enough,' she said. 'People could watch English programmes, or read English newspapers. We have to think of every way to foster such an environment.' Ms Wong is counting on continual generous support from the Government. She says Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa took her advice by unveiling measures to ease teachers' workload in his latest Policy Address. Apart from the extended NET scheme, they include a 50 per cent increase in enhancement grants for secondary schools and the provision of a counselling teacher for each primary school. But the bottom line is that there is a limit to how much support teachers on the frontline of implementing reforms can expect, she says. 'It will help . . . if they can teach fewer classes, but the financial implications of that will be too high. Changes will come only gradually and they will need to adapt to them.'