Education in Hong Kong
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Agnes Chan (left) is appointed Hong Kong goodwill ambassador by then Tourism Board chair, Selina Chow, in April 2001. Bold-thinking, streetwise and deeply caring, Chan seems tailor-made for the role of education secretary. Photo: David Wong

Why pop star Agnes Chan as Hong Kong’s education secretary would be a stroke of genius

Philip Yeung says the Unicef ambassador with degrees in child psychology and education is tailor-made to take charge of Hong Kong’s calcified public education system and free its schools of bureaucratic tunnel vision

Rumours abound that Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect is considering Agnes Chan Miling, “the pop star with a PhD”, for the post of education secretary. That would be a stroke of genius.
Hong Kong’s public education is in a sorry state; it has left children stressed out and is blamed for a spate of student suicides. Teachers are unhappy as well, reduced to drill sergeants, rather than mentors. Bureaucratic micro management has turned them into paper-shuffling, report-writing clerks. Parents suffer as well: giving up family holidays, booking time off work or quitting altogether just to shepherd their children’s education, to help them navigate the endless exams. Many uproot their family in search of better schools abroad. “Migration for education” is a sad and unique Hong Kong obsession.
What our system needs is a major overhaul, such as ending the hated Territory-wide System Assessment

I fail to understand this misplaced faith in over-testing. Haven’t 1,300 years of imperial examinations in China taught us anything about the evils of rote learning ? Those notorious exams sucked the brightest Chinese brains into the sterile study of literary classics. If we are serious about technological innovation, then unshackle students from exam-driven learning. What our system needs is a major overhaul, such as ending the hated Territory-wide System Assessment.

Revamped tests extended to all Hong Kong primary schools

Educational problems keep breaking out – the latest over whether Wah Yan College should bow to the inevitable and defect to the fee-charging direct subsidy school system. If this last Jesuit bastion of free education falls, would La Salle be far behind? It would spell the end of a glorious era in missionary education, thanks to perverted policies.
What kind of logic requires a good public school to turn itself into a fee-charging institution? What happens to 15 years of free education? By imposing substantial tuition, it puts quality education beyond the reach of low-income families, removing the ladder to upward social mobility. No wonder philanthropists can’t find hardship cases among local university students.
Wah Yan College in Wan Chai has thus far been funded and aided by the government. Photo: Dickson Lee

Illustrious Hong Kong school founded by Jesuits should remain free to all, rich or poor

Common sense dictates that if a school excels, it deserves greater autonomy. But why must it charge fees? Tell me this is not impoverishing public education – creating two separate streams, one for those who can afford quality, and another for those who can’t. The direct subsidy scheme is an abomination, a naked social injustice that would not be tolerated in an open society. Hong Kong stands alone in its notoriety.

While Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor faces an uphill fight amid pressing social issues, from a universal pension to housing, she will enjoy all-party support in education reform. When a root-and-branch change sweeps our school system, she will detoxify the social atmosphere.

The direct subsidy scheme is an abomination, a naked social injustice

Now is the time for professional educators to take charge. Chan studied social child psychology at the University of Toronto and then earned a PhD in education from Stanford, to which she famously sent her three sons. Our calcified system doesn’t need a hard-nosed bureaucrat with tunnel vision. We need someone with a velvet touch and an iron will who can think laterally about education. Chan is such a person: as a charismatic singer, she knows how to connect with people. As a Unicef ambassador and fundraiser for the Soong Ching-ling children’s fund, she is no ivory tower educationalist, but a pragmatist with a big heart to do big things for children.

Next education chief or not, Agnes Chan knows the system’s faults

The ministerial accountability system is designed for people just like Chan. Bold-thinking, streetwise and deeply caring, she seems tailor-made for this role. She would be an inspired choice.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an academic consultant. [email protected]

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Velvet touch and iron will: pop star with a PhD fits education bill