On education reform

July 30, 2021 09:47
Photo: RTHK

If there is one thing that would be unironically uncontroversial to individuals across the political spectrum – it’d almost certainly be the “fact” that Hong Kong’s education system is in need of reform. The system has been panned as “out-of-sync”, “anachronistic”, “inhumane”, and “counterproductive” by many – including academics, practitioners, policymakers who have themselves been embroiled in the decision-making processes.

Yet prior to critiquing and advancing suggestions as to how reforms could materialise, it is imperative that we bear in mind the institutional strengths and successful track record that our education system has enjoyed throughout the years. States ranging from Australia and the UK have always viewed Hong Kong’s hyper-competitive, hyper-efficient education system as an exemplar to take a leaf or two from; many of the top talents we cultivate have gone on to become globally renowned scientists, theorists, investment bankers, and lawyers. To give credit where credit is due, the “industrial pipeline” methodology adopted by pedagogists and educators in Hong Kong has indeed been a critical force driving the city’s astronomical economic growth over the past four to five decades.

This then begs a more fundamental question – why, then, are the subjective experiences and objective quality of life of students under the status quo education system, so vastly divergent from the outward projection that the system has managed to maintain over the years? Could it be to do with the exceptional PR skills of our government? Or the fact that education systems around the world are afflicted with more fundamental and intransigent problems? Indeed, would the answer here lie with the discrepancy in cultural norms and social mores – virtues that we take for granted and as prerequisites for a minimally decent education, are pedestalised by others as ostensibly miraculous products of the system?

I think the answer is much simpler – and it rests with the fact that whilst Hong Kong excels (somewhat) in accordance with narrowly defined objective indicators (the most measurable, quantifiable, and imminently manifest variables), we lag desperately behind on fronts of unquantifiable skills, as well as the intangible assets that render any education system worth subscribing to and partaking in: in short, we win on paper, but we lag behind in substance.

The first and foremost reform we ought to consider, must be oriented around the objective of ensuring that our curriculum could catch up with the times that we live in. We live in times when globalisation and internationalisation define our zeitgeist – where to be able to make sense of, to grapple with, and to communicate with other cultures and peoples, is not a matter of option, but a virtuous necessity.

Yes, the threat of US-China decoupling looms; yes, there is the danger that globalisation is on decline – that talk of interconnectivity and cultural exchange may well be ill-fitting for our current times. Yet none of this could be an excuse for our education system to lag despairingly behind when it comes to exposing its students and members to competing frameworks of beliefs, ideologies, and cultures around the world. Linguistically, the “mother tongue as medium of instruction” reforms were undertaken most certainly with the best of intentions – though has apparently produced a generation of Hong Kong students that lack both versatility and depth; indeed, the emphasis upon Cantonese has not been successful at preserving the language – if anything, it has only dampened and constricted the linguistic capacities of a vast majority of our youth.

More substantively, beyond the language question, understanding and comprehension of both our own country (China) and the world at large is lacking. Some would attribute this to the political turmoil and partisan rhetoric that have come to define how Hong Kong youth approach the mainland. Yet this explanation cannot possibly account for the inward-looking nature of students – as they shift away from seeking to interpret, change, and reform the world at large, towards a primarily Hong Kong-centric perspective, that views the world through the most miniscule of frames. On the other hand, there has also been this eerie assertion, that to be a global citizen, or a Chinese citizen, must come into loggerheads with the Hongkonger identity. This is absurd – Hong Kong is a global, international city, and to bury our own cultural heritage and legacy for the sake of internationalisation, makes no sense whatsoever.

Secondly, mental health is a critical and vital problem. A substantial number of our youth endure incredible stress as a result of the frankly unimaginable volume of examinations, assessments, and coursework that they have to sit through as mandatory requirements. Hongkongers enjoy thinking through the lenses of products, of outcomes, of ends to be reached and satisfied – yet education is not a task-setting and task-completing exercise. Tasks, homework, and assessments are but means to an ends – the ends of raising and cultivating competitiveness in our future generations, of instilling new ideas and innovation in those who dare to dream. Education should not be about stifling dreams and boxing them up in the most myopic of terms. Instead, it is imperative that educators are given the freedom and room to nudge their students to choose, to explore, to learn on terms they are most comfortable with – and this, is an area where the local education system is clearly failing its denizens.

There are all sorts of political considerations and calculations at work here when it comes to education – it would be naïve to set aside or disregard the ideological and political role that it does serve, and, probably, should serve. Yet besides all the politics, surely – there is more that can and ought to be done to equip and empower our future, our youth. And that, I’d posit, is a critical task that those governing our city must take to heart.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review