Education in Hong Kong: A tale of snobbery and ignorance

September 08, 2017 18:00
Hong Kong authorities have been accused of treating vocational training centers as second-class institutions when it comes to supply of resources, compared to universities. Photo: HK Govt

Educational snobbery and ignorance are a terrible combination and one that is quite prevalent in Hong Kong.

To absolutely no one's surprise the tycoon-run Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre has recently produced a survey showing that an overwhelming majority of respondents thought poorly of educational qualifications awarded by vocational training institutes.

This comes despite the fact that what used to be called Vocational Training Centres were rebranded as Institutes of Vocational Education, presumably to ameliorate their low status.

The dimwits who run the well-funded Bauhinia Foundation tut-tuted about these findings and then displayed their ignorance by talking about university education purely in terms of the jobs that can be derived from getting a degree.

This primitive approach to education is widespread and demonstrates an inability to understand that education has an enormous value to individuals and society not just in terms of how it may or may not train people for work but in the creation of ways of thinking and understanding – lifelong skills that should be more valued and are vocationally explicit.

Unsurprisingly this job-oriented mindset is prevalent in government as well as among parents who can't get their heads around the concept of education as a value in itself. The former Chief Executive was a great one for emphasizing the functional purposes of education and used to speak glowingly about 'practical' university courses training people for jobs.

No doubt Leung Chun-ying was right in some ways because a liberal education, causing people to think for themselves and encouraging the development of critical abilities is anathema to an instinctive authoritarian who believes that education should primarily be functional and should inculcate the ideas of the rulers. That, of course, is what this obsession with so-called national education is all about, but that discussion is for another time.

What universities should do is to develop minds; some students will gravitate towards strictly vocational courses such as the law and medicine, but most others will hopefully be using their university education for acquiring a broader foundation of learning that will serve them well in many aspects of their lives.

Meanwhile the terrible snobbery that is attached to vocational training is misguided but in many ways reinforced by a government that regards its own vocational training centers as being distinctly second class kinds of places that need to be supplied with fewer resources than universities. Even in appearance, most IVEs look distinctly inferior to universities.

In places where grown-ups preside over educational policy, vocational training has both status and resources. This is particularly so in Germany which has a long tradition of valuing this kind of education and not regarding it as being a second-class option.

In Hong Kong even the old polytechnics were worried about not being called universities because they were concerned over the lack of status. Thus, the previously named Hong Kong Polytechnic, which has a number of areas of unique excellence, could not wait to become the Poly University.

More recently the teacher training establishment that used to be known as the Institute of Education obsessed over becoming the Education University. It's more or less the same as it was and continues to perform a perfectly decent role in teacher training but in Hong Kong, where status matters, the lack of a university title worried the folks over in Tai Po.

It's time to step back from all this nonsense and recognize education in a much wider context. It may even be possible to cease the practice of seeing schools, even those catering to tiny children, as being something much more than exam machines – but maybe this is all way too ambitious.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author