Who benefits from the HK$5 billion pledged by Carrie Lam for Hong Kong’s education sector?
Everyone seems to want a slice of the cash cake, and each group has a different wish list
From the spate of student suicides in recent years to the heavily criticised Territory-wide System Assessment and the dismal approval ratings of schools minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim, education has taken some of the biggest hits under the current administration.
So when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged during her successful campaign to become chief executive to quickly increase recurrent expenditure on education by HK$5 billion a year, many applauded the move.
But after the initial fanfare, and with Lam set to take office on July 1, both questions and criticisms are starting to surface regarding how the money should be spent, with almost all stakeholders wanting a piece of the cash cake.
Following recent discussions, it was revealed that Lam plans to use some of the money to help secondary school leavers who have to take costly self-financing degree programmes owing to insufficient publicly subsidised university places.
Among her other initial proposals were to increase the number of teachers in primary and secondary schools and to make permanent a pilot scheme under which a teacher was deployed to coordinate matters relating to special education needs.
These initial measures would cost around HK$3.6 billion, educators who met Lam cited her as saying, with the sector hoping funding would be approved by the Legislative Council before its July break so proposals may be implemented by the start of the new school year in September.
The moves have generally been warmly received and, on paper, appear to cover several promises made in her election manifesto.
But some students, those who truly benefit from education, have a different wish list.
Secondary Four student Comson Or Yan-lung hopes funds can be invested in one-to-one counselling services for less gifted students. While he is in one of the better performing classes, Or said some others struggled with taking in what was taught in lessons.
Or said teachers did not have the time to address the needs of every student, while not everyone could afford tuition classes. “Through such a scheme, we can reduce the disparity between the so-called elite students and those with lower learning abilities.”
He also proposed setting up an education platform for students with free resources such as journals and e-books.
“For history and liberal studies, I have to do research but I do not have access to a lot of articles due to copyright issues and sometimes I am not sure whether certain articles are suitable for what I am learning,” he said.
Or would also like to see more money put into foreign language, drama and cooking classes, giving students a break from more stressful academic subjects.
Alvis Chan Ngok-lam, student union president at City University, wants more places at university hostels to be provided.
While there was talk a couple of years ago of a hostel for City University students being built in Ma On Shan, the project has yet to be approved by the Finance Committee.
With regard to the suggestions made by Lam, some concerned parties have also pointed out that the devil is in the detail.
According to those who met her, the proposal to help those taking self-financing degree programmes involves handing out HK$30,000 subsidies in the form of vouchers to students who meet the minimum requirement for admission to local universities as well as those pursuing a degree after getting an associate degree.
In Hong Kong, the basic requirement for admission to a local university is a level three in Chinese and English language, a level two in maths and liberal studies, and level two in one elective in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) examination.
Annually, there are 15,000 subsidised first-year university degree places, costing about HK$40,000 a year, available. However, since the implementation of the DSE, more students have met the basic requirement than the number of places.
Last year, 24,611 youngsters met the minimum requirement for admission to a subsidised public university degree course.
Many have ended up enrolling in self-financing degree programmes, with most courses costing twice as much as publicly subsidised degrees.
Lai Wan-yiu, from concern group Youth Policy Advocators, said Lam should consider increasing the number of publicly subsidised university places instead of handing out vouchers.
“There is currently no monitoring in terms of school fees for institutions offering self-financing degree programmes and our research found that these fees on average increase 4 per cent each year,” she said.
“The vouchers [proposed by Lam] cannot guarantee that students will not be burdened financially by the increase in school fees.”
Lai also urged Lam to increase subsidised places for associate degree and higher diploma programmes so as to help students who could not meet the basic requirement to enter local universities to continue education.
On improving staff numbers, Lam suggested increasing the number of teachers in primary and secondary schools by 0.1 per class.
This would mean that a school would have an additional teacher for every 10 classes.
The current class-to-teacher ratio at primary levels at public schools is 1:1.5, while that for junior secondary levels is 1:1.7. At senior secondary levels, the class-to-teacher ratio is 1:2.0.
But education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen believes increasing the number of teachers by 0.3 per class would be much better,
While he acknowledged it would be difficult to do so in the next school year, he said Lam could set a lower target at 0.2 and then raise it to 0.3 in future.
Some stakeholders also felt they were being left behind by Lam’s suggestions.
Catlyn Ho Yu-ying, of the Alliance for Children Development Rights, said Lam should also have families on lower incomes in mind when devising how to use the HK$5 billion.
“The number of students from lower income groups entering university has dropped from over 3 to 2.4 in the past 10 years, for every 10 students,” she said.
Ho added that previous studies by her group found that 10 per cent of lower income families did not own a computer, which she said would hurt children when it came to doing their online assignments.
She proposed a one-off subsidy of between HK$2,000 to HK$4,000 per child in lower income families to help them buy a computer.
Some have also questioned whether HK$5 billion was enough to tackle current problems relating to education.
Fung Wai-wah, president of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said the next administration should inject as much as HK$10 billion more next year and eventually raise spending on public education to 4.5 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, from the current 3.3 per cent.
He said the current government had been “ill-treating” the education sector.
“Coupled with the administration before [Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying], the government has been using short-term subsidies to manage a long-term need for manpower and resources for more than 10 years, hence related problems have accumulated over many years,” Fung said.
He added that education accounted for 21.2 per cent of government expenditure, compared with 23 per cent five years ago. During the administration of first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa the figure stood at 25 per cent.
Fung said increasing education spending to 4.5 per cent of GDP would put the city on a par with average levels in other high-income societies, while noting the extra HK$5 billion would only increase the current level to 3.5 per cent.
Recurrent spending by the government on education in the 2016-17 financial year was about HK$74.7 billion.
Veteran educator Tai Hay-lap believes the HK$5 billion was set aside only for urgent matters to be tackled before schools reopen in September. “Lam wants to show society that education need not be so divisive,” he said.
Tai also expects a new government to later conduct a more thorough review on aspects of education and to come up with more funding and plans.
Moving forward, he suggested that besides looking at problems resulting from the past, the next government should also plan for the future.
Measures would include the whole-person development of students and lifelong learning as well as improving the quality of teachers.
Those who have met with Lam also said she was still seeking feedback on how to use the rest of the money, and was open to spending more if necessary.