HKDSE - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

If Hong Kong’s students are too focused on future income, are the adults to blame?

Tony F. Chan says Hong Kong society gives students the impression that only certain glamorous fields, such as medicine, offer a path to success, instead of encouraging them to follow their passion and be trailblazers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 10:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 6:56pm

The exam season is over and, as usual, the media has turned its attention to the top scorers in the Diploma of Secondary Education. Of six students who scored 5** in all subjects this year, five said they wanted to pursue a degree in medicine, while the sixth preferred heading for dentistry.

Immediately, many people pointed fingers at the choices of these students. Some criticised them for having “no guts” or making “boring” choices, while others lamented that our youth are too money-minded, as the medical profession promises a steady income.

Pursuing a medicine degree isn’t a wrong decision to make. I have always believed that choosing a major comes down to the free choice of any individual. And given that, it is probably not appropriate for us, as outsiders, to direct our personal criticisms at these students. They worked hard and they had the scores to show for it, and we should not let anything take away from this fact.

But I think it is a good time for our society as a whole to reflect a bit upon ourselves. Have we, as adults, given our youth an impression that nothing but a particular field – in this case, medicine – is the way to success? I recently came across an article on someone who was a 10Astandout back in 2003 – he went into an industry which he thought was the right choice, income-wise and career-wise, only to find out 10 years later that he did not really like his work and chose to reboot his career elsewhere for a much smaller paycheck.

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I believe our society does not do a very good job in showing what other paths, or career choices, are out there in this world, which our youth can pick from and still achieve great success with.

It is crucial to encourage the younger generation to develop their own interests, so that our city can build a broader and more diverse pool of talent and innovators. In fact, many of the important inventions that have changed our lives were conceived by intelligent people who came from a wide range of academic and career backgrounds.

Pursuing a professional degree such as medicine, law, or accounting is just one of the many different ways to contribute to society. If we open our eyes and take a good look around, there are also other professions that can make a difference.

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Take medical engineering as an example. A lot of the advances we enjoy in today’s hospitals – such as the X-ray, the MRI, the cardiac pacemaker and artificial joints – are all developed by engineers, scientists and mathematicians. Without them, the modern hospital would not exist. Medical engineering also saves lives, but it certainly lacks the glamour of being a doctor. Perhaps a better public relations effort would help change that reputation.

Many top executives were not top students or majors in a specific field

As a long-time educator, I have always advised my students that the major one picks today need not determine one’s future career. My own case is an example. I wanted to study physics as my first degree at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) but, even though I did well in exams, I realised that I was not cut out to be a good physicist.

I was fortunate to discover the then-new field of computer science, which not only made use of my aptitude and skills in physics and maths, but turned out to be the biggest technological development over the last half century. Little did I expect that I would end up leading academic and funding programmes for maths and the physical sciences, without having a relevant degree in these fields.

Many top executives of leading companies were not top students or majors in a specific field when they started their careers. Alibaba’s Jack Ma majored in English. Tencent’s Pony Ma majored in computer science. Elon Musk studied physics and economics. And Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are Harvard dropouts.

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A rich base of knowledge across multiple spectrums is what made these leaders stand out. And our youth need not think what they are choosing to study at age 18 will determine what they will be doing for the rest of their lives. No degree can guarantee career success and what you learn at university may not be relevant in 10 years’ time.

It is more important to keep upgrading yourself to prepare for the future. Take the investment banking industry for example: it was once the exclusive cradle of financial elites but has recently begun recruiting engineers and mathematicians, thanks to the rise of fintech.

Ultimately, the most important thing our youth should keep in mind is, income aside, they have to do what they love and do it well.

Choosing a major should not be just about what your peers are doing, or what your parents or teachers tell you to do. You will be the only one responsible for your work when you graduate, and you should choose carefully. Your peers cannot do your work for you if you find out later you do not like your major at all.

As someone once said, “Chase your passion, not your pension”. But have we been pursuing career paths that align with our passions and interests? Have we not tried to tell our youth to only take the path that has been taken before and is “safe”, rather than encourage them to blaze their own paths and chart their own course?

We as educators must take a step back to reflect on ourselves. By making exam scores and income prospects the first priority, we in Hong Kong will never produce our own Steve Jobs.

Professor Tony F. Chan is president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology