Two of the main themes of Hong Kong’s budget this year are “diversified development” and “augmenting competitiveness”.
I don’t think there will be much opposition to this set of strategies.
The problem is, however, whether the allocation of government resources really serves these purposes.
The government has always claimed that it gives priority to education, and in this year’s budget the total spending on education is HK$79.3 billion (US$10.2 billion), surpassing that on all other policy areas.
However, what the government didn’t tell the public is that Hong Kong is not alone in spending billions on education — so are our major competitors.
In the past 10 years, our education spending only grew an annual average of 3.1 percent, ranking ninth among the top 10 policy areas, lagging far behind the average annual growth of 4.9 percent in overall public expenditure and the annual inflation rate of 4.4 percent.
The increased resources are in fact just enough to maintain the existing level of service, and many new education programs often have to compete with one another for funding.
Education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been below the average of the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In recent years, the percentage of education spending in our total government expenditure has continued to drop.
This year it stands at only 16.7 percent, the second lowest since the handover in 1997.
In the past decade, the government has introduced a lot of new education measures, such as the promotion of integrated education, information technology education, the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education curriculum and the expansion of self-financing university places, yet the resources available are far from enough to carry out all these new initiatives.
To make matters worse, the administration often didn’t get its priorities right.
For example, the idea of mainland exchange programs in our primary and secondary schools is not bad, but the government should extend the scope of the program and bring it to the international level, instead of just exchanging with mainland schools, so as to truly broaden the horizons of our students.
On the other hand, to the dismay of the members of the education sector, the government has failed to address some of the pressing issues that are facing our education workers, such as the ever-increasing workload of teachers as a result of the government’s curriculum reform that cuts schools and reduces class numbers, and the difficulties of newly graduated teachers in finding jobs, nor has it provided sufficient resources to help schools overcome their problems.
Simply put, the government is only paying lip service to our school sector, and the so-called growth in education spending is indeed deceiving.
When it comes to government investment in education, Hong Kong is falling behind its competitors, and the gap is quickly widening.
The latest OECD figures show that public and private education spending accounts for an average of 6.1 percent of annual GDP among its members.
In comparison, since the handover, education spending has remained between 3.07 percent and 4.56 percent of GDP in Hong Kong.
Even in this year’s budget, in which the government has reassured the public of its continued commitment to the development of education, education spending still accounts for only 3.4 percent of annual GDP.
All this suggests that our government’s investment in education has been insubstantial and average annual growth has remained low, while our overseas competitors continue to pour a lot more resources into education, and it will only be a matter of time before they are completely ahead of us in terms of competitiveness, simply because we have been doing badly in nurturing our own talent.
With billions of dollars in reserve and surplus, I don’t see any reason why our administration is still pinching pennies when it comes to education spending.
The government keeps saying that it has already put a lot of resources into education, and the public should be satisfied with that.
The reality is education policy has continued to come under fire from parents and teachers, and the discontent among our stress-ridden frontline education workers with the existing policy is about to reach the tipping point.
It is my sincere hope that the administration can have the courage to face the reality and wholeheartedly put more resources into education.
To raise the overall standard of education in Hong Kong, policymakers must also demonstrate vision and long-term commitment.
Half-measures and complacency are definitely not what the public expects.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 16.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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