Our market-driven educational edge

(Next Magazine, 2015/6/11, A002, Second Opinion, Bill Stacey)

Our market-driven educational edge

Our government spends 21% of recurrent expenditure on education. This is our single biggest budget item. There can be no doubt that this priority reflects the values of our people. Education has traditionally been seen as a route, if not to wealth, to a respectable living. Learned people are held in high esteem. The horizons of our children and their parents have always been broad, aspiring to attend the best universities in the world, which include some of our own well ranked universities.

Little wonder then that education issues are a hot potato.

However, we not only spend on education, we deliver results. The authoritative OECD program for international student assessment (PISA) has found our students consistently scored among the 3 best performers of 15 year olds’ knowledge in mathematics, reading and science. Equally importantly, our system showed “resilience”, with the highest proportions of economically disadvantaged students amongst the top 25% of performers.

Despite these results, our system is criticized, usually by anecdote, for producing students less creative than those of lower ranked systems. Our students are particularly criticized for the poor quality of their English and Putonghua. Reliance on rote learning is denigrated. Curricula changes are politicized.

The focus of many of these debates is not on traditional criteria of education, but on the attitudes and beliefs held by students after their education. If one does not like what people think or say, education is an easy scape-goat for those “errant views”. Yet the finest education does not produce orthodox thinking, but the ability to challenge and validate assumptions.

Inevitably, a lot of focus is placed on the Education Bureau and its policies and curricula. However, culture surely plays a key role in shaping our high educational rankings. The focus of parents and families rewarding and pushing for educational achievement is relentless, although this is not unique to Hong Kong and Chinese culture.

However, the most distinctive feature of education in Hong Kong is competition and the large private market. We have a number of largely autonomous education systems. In addition to the government system (which also gives selective DSS schools more autonomy), the ESF and a range of “international” and independent schools operate with a high degree of independence from bureaucratic control. Outside of Hong Kong, there are few cities in the world where you can take your pick of a curriculum modelled on France, Germany, the U.S., the UK, Australia or Singapore amongst others. Private tutoring and “cram schools” do a thriving trade. Kindergartens remain privately owned, although as the level of government subsidies rises, their autonomy is being trammelled. Despite it being the biggest budget item, our public spending on education is an unexceptional 3.8% of GDP, compared to a 5.3% average for the OECD. Including private expenditures, the total education spending is close to double that. What is distinctive about education in Hong Kong is the proportion of market-driven private spending on top of the regular school system.

The sheer size of this private contribution in time and resources is Hong Kong’s educational edge. It is also the best protection from officially sanctioned changes to curriculum for reasons that are nationalist rather than educational. Parents who make huge investments in their children’s education have little tolerance for time spent on dalliances that will not help get their sons and daughters admitted into some of the best universities in the world. Those same parents enjoy many choices and some will vote literally with their feet by sending their children to schools overseas.It is said that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” and this is very much the case for education. To preserve the success and integrity of education in Hong Kong is not mainly a political issue. The only real guarantee of autonomy is to pay for the education that you want yourself. That means a system that is diverse, competitive and has open entry for many visions. It also means that advocates of more government funding are putting at risk one of the bulwarks of our freedom.

Bill Stacey