Ethnic minority students penalized under flawed education system

August 09, 2018 10:40
Our education system has failed to provide a viable mechanism for ethnic minority students whose mother tongue isn’t Chinese to learn our language and be evaluated properly. Photo: GovHK

People who have traveled abroad would agree that language is often the biggest barrier between two different ethnic groups.

And being able to communicate in the local language is a basic requirement for anyone who wants to lead a normal life in a foreign land.

As an international city, Hong Kong is well known for being a place where East meets West.

However, a lot of members from certain ethnic minorities, many of whom have already settled here for two to three generations, are unable to climb up the social ladder because they are denied access to equal opportunities.

And the main element leading to this social inequality is the fact that our mainstream education system has failed to provide a viable mechanism for ethnic minority students whose mother tongue isn’t Chinese to learn our language and be evaluated properly.

As we can see from official figures, in the 2016/17 academic year, only 265 ethnic minority students who are permanent Hong Kong residents were admitted to government-funded undergraduate courses provided by local universities.

For the vast majority of those who were unable to go to college, the single biggest reason for their rejection is that they had failed to get the required grades in the Chinese language subject.

Some people might argue that since Chinese is the most commonly spoken language in Hong Kong, our universities are therefore justified in requiring ethnic minority students to master the language just as good as native Chinese (or Cantonese) speakers do, and imposing the same set of assessment standards on them in public exams.

The argument might appear reasonable at first glance.

However, if it is fair to require ethnic minority students to have the same Chinese proficiency level as local Chinese students when it comes to university admissions, then isn’t it also fair for our universities to demand that local Chinese students be as proficient in English as native English speakers as a condition for admission? Or is it?

We believe that our government is adopting a double standard when it comes to language education: local Chinese students are well taken care of and are entitled to a well-established mechanism under which they can learn English as a second language (ESL) in schools and be assessed accordingly in public exams, whereas ethnic minority students just don’t enjoy the same treatment.

If there is already a long-standing and well-established ESL learning and assessment mechanism tailor-made for local Chinese students, then why can’t the Education Bureau duplicate that and set up a “Chinese as a second language” (CSL) learning and evaluation mechanism for ethnic minority students in our city as well?

To be fair, the SAR government has been increasingly attentive to the special education needs of ethnic minority students.

Since the 2014/15 school year, for instance, the Education Bureau has been providing a CSL learning framework for ethnic minority students.

Apart from that, an extra HK$200 million is diverted into supporting schools in teaching Chinese to ethnic minority students every year.

Unfortunately, it appears these measures have proven hardly efficacious, not to mention that the overwhelming majority of ethnic minority students have simply found the existing CSL learning framework unhelpful.

From a practical perspective, before a satisfactory mechanism that can meet policy targets and deliver ideal results is put in place, ethnic minority students will continue to be penalized under our flawed and unfair education system.

Over the years there have been mounting calls in the education sector for the government to formulate a comprehensive CSL learning and assessment mechanism for ethnic minority students.

As education has been of great concern to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor ever since she took office, it is but reasonable for society to expect her to put forward some solid reform initiatives regarding our education system and introduce measures to redress the inequalities ethnic minority students are facing.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legco member representing the Legal functional constituency (2016-2020) and a founding member of Civic Party