Is lifelong learning just an empty slogan?

July 28, 2021 09:21
Image: CIC

As technology advances at an unprecedented pace, Industry 4.0 is revolutionising the way industries operate and changing talent needs. Governments around the world are taking the initiative to formulate policies that accelerate economic transformation and boost competitiveness. Hong Kong is no exception – as evidenced by the Re-industrialisation Funding Scheme launched by the Government last year. However, in the face of an ever-changing future, investment into the “hardware” of industrial technology alone will not suffice, attention should also be given to developing the “software” of manpower and talents: Hong Kong’s workforce must upskill and reskill in order to support the city’s economic restructuring and keep up with the rapid digitalisation sweeping across the globe.

Lifelong learning is a concept far from new. As early as 2000, the ‘Reform Proposals for the Education System in Hong Kong’ tabled by the Education Commission already placed ‘lifelong learning’ and ‘all-round development’ centre-stage. Yet the culture of lifelong learning has never taken root in Hong Kong. According to a survey conducted by the Census and Statistics Department in 2019, only 6.5% of Hong Kong’s workforce planned to attend job-related training courses, and only about 20% participated in such training in the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of applicants for the Continuing Education Fund dropped from its peak of 70,000 per year during 2005-2007 to less than 20,000 in 2018/19. Yet in Singapore, a comparably small economy, the participation rate is as high as 49%. This shows that Hong Kong lacks a culture of lifelong learning – the public is unaware of continuing education and skills development as tools to take a step up the career ladder.

Policy planning is partly to blame. Opportunities for the working population to pursue continuing education are limited in Hong Kong. Courses offered by the Employees Retraining Board are usually designed for those with an associate degree or below, while schemes introduced by the Labour and Welfare Bureau mainly target new immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups. The shortage of training courses also feeds the popular perception that retraining is only for the unemployed and the low-skilled. As a result, the majority is reluctant to take up continuing education, hindering industry advancement. Confronted with these problems, how should Hong Kong ensure that its talent pool stays competitive, relevant and capable of turbocharging the city’s economic development?

The promotion of continuing education can start with the accreditation of courses. For example, ‘micro-credentials’ are becoming increasingly popular, which allow learners to acquire the skills they need in a flexible manner through short-term online courses. The Government should capitalise on this trend by incorporating continuing professional development (CPD) courses into the Qualifications Framework. At the same time, the Government can bring together industry representatives and course providers to ensure such qualifications are recognised by employers and more seriously considered in recruitment, internal promotions and salary negotiation, which will incentivise Hong Kong people to participate in CPD and stay competitive.

In fact, the Government is well placed to change citizens’ attitudes towards lifelong learning. In the construction sector, for example, the Government made the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) mandatory for all public capital works projects, and since then, BIM has become an essential requirement for the new generation of practitioners and a core component of all relevant courses. In addition, the Construction Industry Council (CIC) has launched the Certification Scheme for BIM Personnel and the Accreditation Scheme for BIM Training Courses, with around 570 practitioners registered to date. It is evident that the Government can take the lead in promoting the training and development of professional skills and speed up the transformation of the industry.

The Government can also encourage the workforce to upskill through subsidies. Hong Kong can follow the example of SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG), which provides one-off grants to citizens to be used within five years. Hong Kong can therefore turn the Continuing Education Fund from a tuition fee reimbursement scheme to a time-limited subsidy, encouraging citizens to future-proof their skills and keep up with the global economic and industrial transformation.

With re-industrialisation gathering steam around the world, the need to upskill is no longer restricted to students – it requires the participation of all citizens. The Hong Kong government must establish a culture of lifelong learning through more effective policies and measures, so that everyone is keen to sharpen their competitive advantage and keep Hong Kong abreast of the times.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Victor Kwok Hoi-kit is Head of Education and Youth at Our Hong Kong Foundation and Christabel Chan Hiu-wai is Research Assistant at Our Hong Kong Foundation