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Hong Kong economy

Hong Kong has the talent for the future – it’s up to our schools to nurture it

  • Bernard Chan says even with significantly more government spending on education, the challenge is to ensure the city’s school system is diverse and nimble enough to provide children with the skills and capabilities that are in demand
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2018, 6:17pm

The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland recently released its annual global talent rankings. The local media made a big story out of the fact that Hong Kong has fallen from 12th to 18th place.

The report is online, and the part about Hong Kong shows that we have quite a mix of strengths and weaknesses compared to the other 63 countries and territories surveyed. We score third both in terms of female participation in the workforce and in basic educational assessment at age 15. We also do well – ranking mostly in the top 10 – as an attractive place for foreign talent. This is thanks to good pay levels, low taxes and a secure environment, despite scoring far less well in living costs and quality of life.

The big problem highlighted in the IMD report is our weakness in investing in and developing local talent – a situation that is apparently getting worse, at least relative to other economies. The report ranks Hong Kong fairly low down for expenditure on education. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pointed out that the report may have been based on old data. The government has announced significant spending increases on all levels of education since taking office in mid-2017.

While the administration gets criticised for lots of things, nearly everyone agrees that this increase in spending is welcome. However, it is not just about money. Whether you are a parent, an employer or involved in school governance or management (I have experience of all these), you know that no one is ever satisfied with the education system in Hong Kong.

The most frequent complaint, broadly, is that our local schools are too focused on getting students to memorise facts to pass exams, rather than developing critical thinking, questioning and understanding. Evidence includes large amounts of homework even for primary-level kids, and the widespread use of private tutorial institutions.

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While some parents hate this high-pressure system, others seem to expect it. And let’s not forget that the IMD survey places Hong Kong 15-year-olds third in educational assessment – which suggests that we are doing something right. I would also say that if you look at their online culture, social and political awareness, and other activities, our young people can hardly be called uncreative or unquestioning.

Hong Kong’s challenges seem to be more about keeping up with the supply of relevant skills and aptitudes to meet future demand. The IMD report specifically mentions science, language and management skills. Some local businesspeople and economists have expressed similar concerns. This is a worry because, with an ageing population, Hong Kong needs to improve productivity in the workforce in the years ahead.

This has to be about how we educate the majority of our children. The media love to highlight small groups of elite students who, for some reason, all want to be doctors or lawyers. As a community, we tend to overlook the importance of developing other disciplines and life skills for the rest of our young people.

It is especially worrying that teaching itself is not considered a more prestigious profession. The government’s policy to improve professional standards and pay for teachers is an important step forward. But we could do more. Many parents who can afford it send their kids to private international schools, which offer a wide range of curriculums and teaching methods. This suggests a real mismatch between what taxpayers want and what the government provides.

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Direct subsidy scheme schools – which are allowed to offer more diverse approaches – are also very popular, but are also fee-paying. This means that the less-well-off majority of children end up in a separate, relatively rigid school system. These schools generally are not so well known among employers. While some of these students do very well, too many are left with limited skills and job options. If we have a local talent gap, these are the people who should fill it. This is also, of course, an issue of social mobility.

Maybe we should give all schools more space to specialise, so parents of all backgrounds have more choice. The aim should be to broaden the number of kids who can go on to worthwhile tertiary-level studies in vocational or professional areas. The talent is there – we need schools that bring it out.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council