University funding cuts under fire

Michael Gibb

Student and staff protesters say the budget belt-tightening will damage the long-term delivery of tertiary education

Hong Kong university students and staff demonstrated yesterday against government plans to cut the higher education budget.

More than 200 protesters, dressed in black T-shirts and headbands, lined up on the Polytechnic University's football pitch to spell out the Chinese character for din - 'in memoriam' - which is most frequently seen in funeral parlours.

'Cuts will have a negative affect on the quality of education on Hong Kong,' said Crystal Fu Yi, 21, general secretary of the PolyU Student Union.

The protesters, who included representatives from the Hong Kong Federation for University Students, the Asian Students Association (ASA) and members of the Polytechnic University academic staff, were reacting to the government proposal to reduce the block grant to the university sector for 2004-2005 by 10 per cent, with further cuts expected for the three years after that.

Student representative Elisa Leung Sin-yue, 20, of the University of Hong Kong, said the 10 per cent was too drastic.

'Anything more than a 3 per cent cut will affect the quality and quantity of our education,' she said.

Ms Leung added that the government should invest in education during an economic recession, not reduce spending.

Demonstrators also voiced their opposition to government plans to de-link staff salaries from the civil service pay scale. The government won support from the Legislative Council's Finance Committee this month to allow universities to set their own staff salaries after July 1.

ASA's regional secretary, Rey Asis, said it was feared that market forces would determine pay scales in the future, which would result in commercialisation of the education sector.

'The Hong Kong government is killing higher education and the future of Hong Kong,' he said.

Ada Yuen Wing-shuen, 19, public affairs secretary of the PolyU Student Union, said the protesters were also concerned about the proposed withdrawal of government subsidies for sub-degree programmes.

The government is considering stopping financial support for higher diplomas and associate degree programmes. She said the government should be supporting such courses if it was serious about raising education standards.