Is Hong Kong dumbing down its education system?

Regina Ip wonders whether, in its focus on education for the masses, Hong Kong has compromised on quality, thus neglecting a key goal of learning - the pursuit of excellence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 February, 2014, 3:06am

Education, a key area in the chief executive's annual policy address, was rated poorly last year but received much higher scores this year. The outcome is hardly surprising, considering that the chief executive has left no stone unturned to mete out relief in response to demands tabled by interest groups in the legislature in recent years.

Even the harshest critics could not accuse the government of turning a deaf ear. From kindergartens to primary schools, from bright high school students aspiring to study abroad to "grass-roots students", from undergraduates enrolled in associate degree programmes to those admitted to universities on the mainland, the government ensured there was something for everyone.

Yet it skirted the most critical issues confronting thinking parents, teachers and students. In the government's drive to spread education to the masses, has it achieved mass education at the expense of quality? Is it possible now to turn back the tide and reverse the downturn towards defeatism and mediocrity?

The decline in English standards of local graduates is well known to be a source of frequent complaints by employers. Less well known to expatriate employers, but even more worrying to the local community, is the decline in standards of written Chinese, ever since the banishment of classical Chinese texts as compulsory reading for examination after the turn of the century.

Since then, secondary-school leavers are tested only on their ability to read, write, listen and speak Cantonese (a mere dialect). The decline in the standard of written Chinese has aroused such widespread concern that the authorities had to agree to reintroduce some classical Chinese and literary texts into the Chinese curriculum for examination in 2015.

Even less well known to the public is the fact that, since 1994, as the result of progressive curriculum reforms implemented by the education authorities, the standards of the mathematics curriculum for our high school students have been steadily dumbed down.

It's not only maths teachers who complain about the decline in standards, especially since the introduction of the core maths subject for senior secondary school students in 2009. Engineering and computer science professors at local universities also say it is hard to train undergraduates who have passed the core maths subject but lack training in advanced trigonometry, vectors and calculus.

It is also debatable whether the supposedly more broad-based, compulsory liberal studies subject, the centrepiece of the new senior secondary school curriculum pushed by the Education Bureau and its chorus of theorists, has really helped to equip our high school students with the necessary knowledge and analytical ability to deal with the many complex issues of modern society.

It is questionable whether "self and personal development", one of the key components of the subject, is better taught in the classroom as an academic subject or as part of a student's extracurricular, character-building activities.

Also, with the compulsory study of China's complex history reduced to a single module of "Modern China" in liberal studies, critics have pointed out that the sum total of students' knowledge of the history of China has been greatly reduced, so that it is impossible for most to see the many trials and tribulations of modern China in context.

Defenders argue that many schools still teach Chinese history as a separate subject, but the hard fact is that a decreasing percentage of students are taking this subject. Last year, the number taking Chinese history as an exam subject dropped to 7,705, or 10.8 per cent of the total, while those taking Chinese literature dropped to 2,813, or 3.94 per cent of the total. Those taking history (that is, world history) dropped to 6,676, or 9.37 per cent of the total, and English literature numbers fell to a pitiable 417, or 0.59 per cent of the total.

The decline in the number of students taking these basic arts and science subjects inevitably translates into lower intakes of undergraduates in these disciplines at local universities.

The diminution of high school students' knowledge of the West is no less disconcerting than their dwindling knowledge of China's history, literature and cultural heritage. Our quest for a transition into a democratic system is not helped when our young people's knowledge of the world and the Western democratic tradition is skin-deep.

Perhaps motivated by the same anxiety about the dumbing down of academic standards and what it bodes for a nation's future, the British government announced in 2012 an ambitious overhaul of the examination system and curriculum reform to beef up standards in traditional academic disciplines such as English, maths and science.

In casting doubt on the UK's reform, some educationists in Hong Kong claim credit for narrowing the academic gap between our most and least able students. Yet what credit can one really claim if the narrowing is the result of progressive dumbing down of the general standards of achievement? The dumb ones do not get smarter, but the smart students are dumbed down.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party