Economic diversity needed to revitalize vocational education

November 19, 2015 15:22
Promoting a more diversified economy and fostering the development of vocational education must go hand in hand. Photo: HKEJ

There was a debate last week in LegCo over a motion that calls on the government to intensify the development of vocational education in Hong Kong in order to enhance the diversity of our workforce.

The development of vocational education in the city dates back to as early as 1932, when the first junior technical school in the territory was opened. Once an important segment in the local education system, vocational and technical schools, however, began to go into decline in the 90s as the manufacturing industry in Hong Kong continued to shrink.

In 1997 the Education Department published a report titled "The Review of Prevocational and Secondary Technical Education", in which it decided that grammar schools would be given priority over other types of schools in order to enhance the overall academic level of our workforce.

Since then many technical and vocational schools have been transformed into grammar schools, and vocational training has taken a back seat in our education curriculum.

Although it is beyond doubt that government policies that favor grammar schools are one of the primary reasons why our vocational education in continually on the decline, it is important to note that the uniformity of our industrial structure has also played a major role in killing off our vocational schools.

Having said that, I believe promoting a more diversified economic structure is a prerequisite to the revitalization of our vocational education, because only by doing so can we guarantee that there are sufficient jobs for vocational school graduates.

Currently the service industry accounts for a whopping 93.3 percent of our total GDP, while it is only 0.1 percent for the primary industry (i.e. agriculture) and 6.6 percent for the secondary industry (i.e. technology and manufacturing).

The lack of jobs that require technical knowhow on the local job market means there are very few career options for vocational and technical school graduates. That creates a vicious circle: the fewer technical jobs on the market, the fewer incentive for young people to enroll in technical schools, and the shortage of new students in turn forces more of these schools to shut down.

Therefore, to get to the heart of the issue, the administration must foster diversity in the economy and boost the share of manufacturing and technology industries in the GDP, thereby enhancing the demand for employees with technical knowhow in the job market.

Perhaps the experience of Germany and Switzerland can provide us with some insight into how we can facilitate the development of our vocational education.

Both countries adopt a "dual system", under which junior high school graduates can either enroll in grammar schools or vocational schools for free. For vocational school students, they only have to attend lessons one to two days a week. The rest of the time they are given paid training jobs in private companies through partnership programs between the government and the business sector.

Currently in Germany, paid apprenticeship is offered in a total of 350 different occupations, while in Switzerland, a tiny country with a population only slightly larger than ours, manufacturing and technology industries account for 26.7 percent of its GDP, as opposed to only 6.6 percent in our city.

I believe the government should attach more importance to vocational education in Hong Kong, so as to provide more choices to young people who want to pursue a different path of education.

In the meantime, the Education Bureau should also assign more resources to the 13 member institutions under the Vocational Training Council, and consider adopting the "dual system" like Germany and Switzerland.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of Legislative Council (Functional Constituency – Accountancy)