Lesson to be learned from DSE giveaway

The fact that Paul Chan Mo-po and education officials did not anticipate a general exam fee waiver would be open to abuse shows a certain cluelessness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 6:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 6:55am

The official U-turn on waiving fees for those taking the Diploma of Secondary Education exam is a sad commentary on the state of our education system.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po originally introduced the one-off waiver for everyone taking the DSE next year as part of the government’s effort to give back some of its massive HK$138 billion fiscal surplus.

But soon after the announcement, professional tutors advertised they would take the free exams to prove their academic prowess. In anti-government and other online forums favoured by young people, pranksters threatened to disrupt the exams or take them just for fun.

They might or might not mean it, but parents and teachers were justifiably concerned. After all, DSE results determine the chances of students to enter a university of their choice, or not at all.

Rules on who gets free exam entry in Hong Kong tightened

To address the concern, the waiver will now be restricted to school students, so private students still have to pay. Almost 60,000 students are expected to take the DSE. Of these, 51,675 are school candidates, with the rest being private students.

Hong Kong is one of the few places that charges students for such exams, and quite a lot too. Each subject costs between HK$414 and HK$619 while a candidate typically takes six subjects, in English and Chinese languages, mathematics, liberal studies and two electives.

In general, handing out so-called sweeteners as a one-off from unexpected budget surpluses is not a public policy, but the opposite of one. It’s a confession you have no idea what to do with the money.

Hongkongers won’t speak English because nobody asks them to

Waiving the exam fees for one year will cost about HK$180 million, a drop in the bucket given the large and ever-growing pile of surplus money the government has been sitting on for years.

Chan described the waiver as a modest gesture to show that officials care about young Hongkongers.

Really? A one-off giveaway shows no such thing. The fact that Chan and education officials didn’t anticipate a general exam fee waiver would be open to abuse rather shows a certain cluelessness.

Now, if the Education Bureau would do the right and rational thing, it should make the DSE exam free for all school candidates once and for all. This should, after all, have been part of our free public education policy all along.

That would indeed be a bona fide policy, rather than a capricious giveaway.