Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Education holds the key to China’s productivity drive

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gerard Burg

Gerard Burg says to overcome the decline in the workforce, the government must raise the quality of schooling, and access to it, while doing more to stop the brain drain

Increasing productivity is one of China’s most critical challenges over the next few decades, as the negative effects of its demographic changes constrain the capacity for growth.

China’s workforce is already declining. As a result, individuals will be required to generate greater economic value to continue the country’s growth and support a growing pool of retirees.

Education is a key factor in raising the average level of productivity. New entrants to China’s workforce already have around four extra years of education than those entering retirement. However, more will need to be done.

China’s public spending on education has increased over the past decade – rising from around 2.1 per cent of gross domestic product in 2004 to around 3.6 per cent last year. This level lags behind the spending in the advanced economies, with the OECD average level of education spending at 5.6 per cent in 2011.

International surveys rank Chinese students as among the best performing in the world. However, there are significant disparities across the country. Schools in rural areas and poorer provinces lack the resources to provide the same quality of education as the best schools of wealthy cities.

Competition to gain access to the top schools is intense. Transparency International reports examples of bribery to secure placements – even payments to secure desks closer to the teacher. Such informal payments contribute to China’s inequality problems, with otherwise deserving children from lower socio-economic groups locked out of the system.

China’s hukou system has also increased the level of disadvantage. There are an estimated 20 million children of migrant workers who are unable to access their local school system, as their migrant parents lack the residential rights to access social services in their cities. The alternative is to leave school-aged children with relatives in their home provinces, and these children typically underperform in measures of educational outcomes.

Foreign observers have also expressed concerns about teaching methodology – namely, that it is focused on strict rote learning, which provides little opportunity for creativity and problem-solving – skills particularly valuable in complex employment. Improving the quality of teaching across the country is necessary to improve the performance and equity of the education system as a whole.

China’s university system has improved considerably over recent decades. However, access for students from less privileged backgrounds has worsened.

And China is still not producing enough graduates to support the shift to a higher-value growth model. In 2012, fewer than 4 per cent of China’s population held a tertiary qualification, compared with almost 33 per cent on average in advanced economies.

Since the late 1970s, over three million Chinese have studied overseas, with Ministry of Education estimates suggesting that only one-third have returned to China. Foreign education has benefited the students, but not necessarily the country. The brain drain includes domestic graduates as well.

Improving the quality of China’s education system, and access to it, may prove critical to the country’s longer-term growth prospects, with higher productivity offsetting the declining working-age population. There are likely to be opportunities for foreign educational institutions to assist in the development of the education sector, but Chinese authorities will have to ensure the benefits are accrued domestically, by slowing the brain drain.

Gerard Burg is senior economist, Asia, at the National Australia Bank


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Hong Kong students need inspiration, not more tests, to excel

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Sun Kwok

Sun Kwok looks at how HKU’s science curriculum has been reformed to shift education away from rote and abstract learning, to instead create a passionfor problem-solving and a wider world view

It is widely reported in the media that Hong Kong students excel in standard science and mathematics tests. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests 15-year-olds in many places, and Hong Kong students – along with those in Singapore, mainland China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea – always rank near the top.

When I arrived in Hong Kong to become dean of science at the University of Hong Kong in 2006, I had high hopes, as HKU takes the top students in the city. I thought it would be a pleasant change from the university students I had been teaching in Canada for the previous 20-some years, as Canadian students usually performed less well in these standard tests.

Indeed, I have found that some Hong Kong students are the smartest and hardest-working students I have ever met. Some are highly motivated to succeed.

At the same time, I can’t help noticing that they have been let down by the system. While Hong Kong students can calculate mathematical problems very quickly and accurately, they have no idea what maths is for.

To them, mathematics is just an abstract exercise unrelated to the real world. Their idea of maths is to mechanically and repeatedly grind through formulas. When asked what mathematics can do to solve problems around us, few can give any answers.

Similarly, science in secondary schools is taught in a segregated manner, and students cannot relate physics to chemistry to biology. Even fewer can relate these subjects to nature, our environment or our everyday lives. Students are very good at learning the abstract knowledge in books, but many fail to see the science present all around them.

Few university students know why it is hot in summer and cold in winter, why the sky is blue, when and how the mountains were formed, why the oceans are salty, or why the moon has phases.

Every child is born curious. Five- and six-year-olds are observant and ask questions about their surroundings all the time. Our schools should promote their curiosity and encourage them to learn more about our world.

However, the education system in Hong Kong burdens them with tons of memorisation and, in the process, strangles their desire to learn.

When they get to university, they are already totally exhausted.

The goal of science education is to show students how to think, analyse real-world problems and come up with solutions. In my classes, I tell my students there will be no memorisation. To reassure them, I allow them to bring papers with notes to the exam. The exam tests their understanding of the subject and their ability to extrapolate this knowledge to new situations. Students find this very hard as they are used to memorising notes and reproducing model answers to standard questions.

Changing the state of science education in Hong Kong is not easy but we have to try. Over the past several years, the Faculty of Science at HKU has made significant changes to our science curriculum. We introduced a credit-based major/minor system to replace the previous fixed-recipe programmes. We now have more than a dozen science majors outside the traditional subjects of physics, chemistry and biology. Students can choose any major and are admitted based on a common admission policy. They are required to undertake experiential learning to help them relate theoretical concepts to practical applications.

In 2012, we created a new one-year sequence of compulsory science foundation courses. In the first course, we discuss the nature, history and methodology of science. We introduce different branches of mathematics and show how maths can be used in different disciplines. The emphasis is on formulation of problems but not calculations. The second course is about integrated science. It encompasses physics, astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry and biology, so students can see how different subjects are intertwined and relevant to each other.

These reforms are based on the philosophy that university education is more than vocational training and our goal is to provide students with a whole-person education with a broad world view, abilities in critical thinking and the flexibility to adjust to a rapidly changing world.

Our science graduates go into many different professions, and they need to have an education that they feel is relevant and will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

Whether such reforms will succeed in changing our students’ thinking and better preparing them for the real world is yet to be seen. But it is clear that the quality of education cannot be measured by standard tests. Instead, we must measure our students by their ability to innovate and compete in the modern world.

Professor Sun Kwok is the dean of science of the University of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong must regain its edge by getting creative with its education system

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Paul Yip

Paul Yip says Hong Kong’s unseating as the most competitive Chinese city must spur us to correct what is wrong in our education system

The latest report on the competitiveness of Chinese cities, released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ranked Shenzhen at the top, ahead of Hong Kong, which had been ranked first since 2005. The finding is unsettling but not unexpected. The study measures competitiveness based on multiple areas, including business environment, efficiency and sustainability.

It recognises Hong Kong’s edge in being a knowledge-based economy, and for its environmental and cultural development. However, the city suffers from inertia because it is relying too much on the core industries of finance, shipping, tourism and professional services. There is not enough effort put into innovation and technology and other small but emerging businesses, such as creative industries.

We have been raising these issues for years but have yet to see anything put in place.

Urgent improvement is needed in several areas. First, Hong Kong suffers from inefficient governance. We not only have the disruption caused by filibustering in the Legislative Council but also an ineffective administration. For example, the government has done little to alleviate the shortage of public housing by reducing abusers of the scheme and improving its allocation system. Each year, the Audit Commission’s reports, about the inefficiencies of government departments, always raise eyebrows.

Secondly, a shortage of land has become a stumbling block for improvement of living and working conditions. Our emerging industries are not short of ideas but they do lack space for expansion and experimentation. Simply, our community development has been hampered by high rental costs for commercial and residential use. Somehow, we have to agree on a trade-off and find viable alternatives. Certainly, existing land should be used more efficiently.

Thirdly, Hong Kong must enhance its human capital to remain competitive and sustainable. According to the latest findings of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development on the science and maths abilities of 15-year-olds in 76 economies, Hong Kong ranked second after Singapore.

Our students’ maths and science ability is clearly ahead of those of their Western counterparts. However, our advantage seems to diminish once they enter university and postgraduate education. Have we got our training and learning right? Perhaps we spend too much time on drills and practice, even though they are important in building solid foundations. At the same time, we may be destroying young people’s enthusiasm and curiosity. We certainly do not need more businesses providing drilling for kindergarten entrance exams.

Furthermore, what we teach in school won’t sustain our young people for long in an ever-changing world; what counts is their ability to adapt.

Unless we can address these issues, it won’t come as a surprise if our rankings continue to go down. Hong Kong needs to continually strive to improve to make a proper contribution to China and the rest of the world. It is time for all stakeholders to get their acts together.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong’s preschools must serve their purpose of getting children ready for school

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Aniruddh Gupta

Aniruddh Gupta says there should be no need for interview prep classes

Recent reports about a tutoring centre offering kindergarten-interview training classes for children as young as 18 months have understandably caused outrage among a public concerned about a school system that puts so much pressure on young children. From a parent’s point of view, they don’t want their child to be left behind; from an operator’s viewpoint, they are filling a “market need”.

The fact that parents and children feel such stress shows that the early childhood industry is not doing its job here. Hong Kong has one of the world’s most expensive early childhood systems, and yet preschools and kindergartens across the city have essentially abdicated their responsibility to make children school-ready.

Even some of the more expensive preschools conduct “transition to primary” and interview prep classes for extra fees. Isn’t it the job of a good preschool to get children ready to enter school?

There appears to be two main tracks of practice here. “International” preschools profess to follow essentially European philosophies on early childhood education developed 50 years ago, and when they find these are not what primary schools are looking for, they run “extra classes”.

Meanwhile, local preschools turn into cram schools for three-year-olds without any regard for the overall development of the child. This dichotomy reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of early childhood education, and the practical stresses on parents raising children in Hong Kong.

The first five years of a child’s life lay the foundation of his or her future; 85 per cent of the human brain develops in these years. A good preschool would develop children organically, at a pace they are comfortable with, across a range of areas including academic proficiency, self-confidence, ability to express themselves, creativity and imagination, logic and reasoning, communication, writing abilities and the like.

Given that most parents in Hong Kong send their children to playschool from the age of nine months, these skills can be developed very early. What it needs is an early childhood education industry that is conscious of its responsibilities to parents and children, willing to incorporate different methods of development, and slightly less materialistic.

A primary role is to get the children school-ready; it is important as the method of getting the children school-ready will determine what they will enjoy doing for the rest of their lives. Children who develop their innate abilities step by step, and at their own pace, will flourish in primary schools and beyond, because the process of learning has become fun and natural.

Interviews for primary schools (and some kindergartens) are a fact of life not just in Hong Kong, but the world over. For a four- or five-year-old child, however, it is not an interview – it is a situation where he or she is speaking to a stranger, possibly for the first time.

If the child is conditioned to be confident in front of peers and adults, to be able to express himself or herself, then it’s just another conversation. And the responsibility for making children confident and articulate enough to be themselves in any situation falls squarely on the preschool he or she attends.

Preschools in Hong Kong need to realise that they have an enormous amount of responsibility towards both the children and their parents when it comes to getting the children school-ready. Only when they do that will there be no need for parents to send their kids to interview prep classes.

Aniruddh Gupta is CEO of the international preschool chain Safari Kid in Asia and the Middle East

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How Hong Kong can turn from laggard to leader in solar energy use

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gavin Edwards and Sarah Keung

Gavin Edwards and Sarah Keung offer two ways by which Hong Kong can cut carbon emissions – and begin to catch up with the leading Asian cities in the adoption of renewable energy

An “all-star” cast of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and leading academics descended on Hong Kong last month to share the latest science on climate change and sustainability, and to call for urgent action and solutions.

At the 4th Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, unveiled new findings of various climate tipping points. The disappearing Greenland ice sheet and the decimation of coral reefs were just a couple of examples of the nightmare scenarios he presented.

It is not all doom and gloom, though. World Bank president Jim Yong Kim urged the world to move to zero net emissions of greenhouse gases “as quickly as possible”, while Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying explained that “Hong Kong attaches great importance to combating climate change”. This is all very timely, because the Hong Kong government has recently begun a consultation to solicit opinion on how to regulate the electricity market, which is the city’s single biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, local electricity generation relies almost 100 per cent on fossil fuels, using imported gas from Turkmenistan via a pipeline through mainland China, and imported coal shipped from Indonesia. Meanwhile, the sun and wind that falls on our territory remains unused – renewable energy sources account for less than 1 per cent of our electricity.

So how have our utilities responded to the challenge of climate change? The answer: CLP Power has just announced it wants to install two additional generators at its Tuen Mun power station, designed to burn gas for the next 30 years. So, as other parts of Asia begin to embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy, our utilities’ response is to ensure that we will be burning more fossil fuels for decades to come.

Hong Kong is lagging behind the rest of Asia in terms of the development of renewable energy. For example, the solar systems installed in Singapore and Seoul can provide 11 times and 23 times more electricity respectively than Hong Kong’s solar system. And both cities have rolled out road maps to substantially increase the installation of renewables.

Something does not add up. Taipei, Shenzhen and Seoul are busy installing solar panels on their rooftops, so why isn’t Hong Kong? To answer this question, you have to turn the clock back to the 1960s, when a set of scheme of control agreements was developed to regulate our electricity market. The framework was a unique, made-in-Hong Kong approach to meeting the city’s growing electricity demand. The agreements provided a high, guaranteed rate of return, motivating power utilities to invest in fixed assets. They served us well in the last century, helping to power our city.

But, in the 21st century, the shortcomings are all too apparent. As the Consumer Council recently pointed out, the current agreements fail to offer choice to consumers. Instead, they help protect the monopolies of our power utilities, delivering healthy, stable profits to them regardless of the local or global economy. The agreements have also failed to anticipate the evolution of technology, and have so far failed to reduce our absolute greenhouse gas emissions.

CLP recently explained that the reason for ignoring wind and solar power is the lack of space and high installation costs. Yet the company has installed wind farms and solar panels in other places where they operate, such as mainland China. This makes business sense because the central government provides policy support and encouragement for renewables, as they want to cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. CLP benefits from these enlightened policies.

The Hong Kong government is fully aware of the current failings of the scheme of control agreements. As far back as 2002, a consultant’s report to the government said the agreements “have a pervasive influence on the current market for new and renewable energy technologies”. This is why Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing has invited the public to provide input on how to deal with the scheme’s shortcomings. We have a rare opportunity to fix the situation in two key ways.

First, a “feed-in tariff” is needed. This mechanism obliges power utilities that operate electricity grids to buy any power generated by wind farms, solar panels and other forms of renewable energy at a set price. Once in place, consumers and renewable energy installers can figure out how profitable it is to install renewable energy equipment.

Back in 2009, the Nobel laureates gathered at St James’ Palace in London with Prince Charles and others and signed a declaration calling for governments around the world to adopt feed-in tariffs. Since then, cities as diverse as Shenzhen, Taipei and Canberra have tapped this policy tool of choice. Consumers with access to rooftops can generate power and earn a little extra money, and the cities they live in benefit from lower emissions and cleaner air. Hong Kong urgently needs this policy.

Second, we need to get serious about energy efficiency. In the existing schemes of control, an incentive was linked to energy efficiency. It states that if the utility companies could achieve or outperform a set energy efficiency level, they would enjoy an additional rate of return and receive a greater profit. The targets set are paltry, and much more ambitious ones are needed -such as 1 per cent of annual peak load demand – with financial incentives for meeting the targets and, significantly, heavy fines for failing to meet them.

By encouraging our power utilities to meet higher targets, they will find ways to encourage customers to use electricity as efficiently as possible.

We are deeply concerned about the very real impact of climate change, and keen to see Hong Kong move from being Asia’s climate laggard to its climate leader. This is why we will urge our government to set and meet strong targets for energy efficiency, and to put in place policies to encourage renewable energy. With such measures in place, CLP could shelve its plans to burn more fossil fuels, and we could all enjoy a powered, prosperous and more sustainable city, with cleaner air and an outstanding global reputation.

Gavin Edwards is conservation director of WWF-Hong Kong. Sarah Keung is senior campaign officer for climate at WWF-Hong Kong