What is needed is a clear vision to move Hong Kong forward at a time of considerable volatility and uncertainty.
What needs to be faced is that the education reforms which started in 2001 have played their role in seeking to transform the system to meet 21st-century needs.
They started with great support from then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa but languished as successive chief executives delegated and forgot about education. They funded it but did not care for it. This is an important lesson for Lam: she must set the direction, monitor it and constantly refresh it. There will be a new secretary, but it is the chief executive who should set out and carry the vision. There are significant challenges.
Some progress has been made on making early childhood education more accessible and this is an important achievement. But, from now on, the issue of teacher quality must take priority, so that children have access to the best teachers. This means the early years’ curriculum must be carefully crafted so it is not just maths, Chinese and English. It needs to encourage creativity and problem-solving, so children make a start on developing lifelong learning skills. A consensus needs to be built about the direction of this, now widely accessible, early childhood education.
The curriculum of primary and secondary schools must also be carefully considered. “Key learning areas” were part of the 2001 reforms. But are they still useful? Science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are now considered very important but are lacking in the current curriculum.
Historical, geographical and cultural understanding need to be better incorporated into the curriculum. Civic and citizenship education can’t continue to be neglected or left up to individual schools. Future citizens need to understand their rights and responsibilities and see the value of constructive engagement in the city’s affairs.
The city’s universities, most of which feature in top international rankings, must be given a freer hand to manage their affairs. The dead hand of bureaucracy needs to be removed. They do not need to be micromanaged around narrow sets of expected outcomes and performance indicators.
At the same time, young people need greater access to government-funded institutions: Singapore currently provides 40 per cent of the age cohort with access to university education while Korea provides the same for 80 per cent. This compares with just 18 per cent in Hong Kong.
Previous administrations have sought to build up private provision of higher education, thus forsaking their public responsibilities to develop an educated and caring citizenry. By all means develop the private sector, but as an adjunct to – not a substitute for – a thriving, innovative and leading-edge public sector with public responsibilities for the future welfare of the city.
There is currently no coordinating body that views education in an integrated fashion across all sectors. The Education Commission has served this function for the schooling sector, the University Grants Committee tries to do it for the university sector. But while recommendations have been made for a separate body to oversee the private education sector, no thought has been given to oversight of the early childhood sector. This results in a fragmented education system in which territory is protected, a common vision is avoided, and over which bureaucrats can rule without interference from either politicians or the public.
It is time for a Hong Kong education council with a brief for vision development and strategic thinking. The new chief executive must lead this council on behalf of the people and on behalf of the future. Education is not a bureaucratic area to be delegated: it is a strategic area on which Hong Kong’s future rests.
Across all sectors of education, teachers are the central players – supporting students’ learning and liaising with parents, with some rising through the ranks to lead schools. These schools can provide the foundations for renewal in Hong Kong.
A new education vision can bind a society through enunciating its common values and commitments. This process can start with the new chief executive embracing education as the key area of her administration. This would be a strong signal to the community that Hong Kong can rise again, with an educated and intelligent citizenry ready to face the future.
Professor Kerry Kennedy is a senior research fellow in the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at The Education University of Hong Kong