The education of Hong Kong

Residents of the former British colony begin their new life under Chinese rule with a highly educated workforce, following a massive investment in tertiary education.
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The Independent Online
Crystal balls are unreliable: but the visitor to Hong Kong is bound to feel that the alarm often expressed in the Western media about its future after the handover to China may be misplaced, at least as far as the ex-colony's tertiary education is concerned. Everybody knows all about Hong Kong's dizzy growth in productivity during the last two decades. It is the eighth largest trading entity in the world; the value of its exports and imports has increased almost sixfold in the space of the last decade. What is perhaps less common knowledge is the equally remarkable effort to bring tertiary education into line with these burgeoning demands and opportunities. The number of full-time degree students quadrupled between 1985 and 1995. According to the latest statistics, there are 44,446 full-time first-degree, and 8,705 postgraduate, students. Up to the Eighties, an elitist concept had drawn a mere 2-3 per cent of the local population into higher education. But in 1989 (the year of Tiananmen Square), the colony's Executive Council decided that by the middle of the Nineties as many as 18 per cent of the age cohort should be enrolled in university education so as to equip Hong Kong for its future role.

This monumental expansion, financed largely though not exclusively by the taxpayer, has in fact been achieved. It has resulted in a situation not of students chasing too few university places but rather the reverse. The angling for recruits is manifested in the wealth of glossy publications in which competing institutions trumpet the excellence and student-friendliness of the courses on offer.

The current provision of tertiary education is massive. There are as many as six universities as well as an Open Learning University (comparable to our OU), a teacher training institution and, somewhat outside the system but still government-supported, the Academy of Performing Arts. True, some of the universities conjured up during the Nineties are in fact upgraded polytechnics rather than new institutions.

But the energy that has gone into creating wholly new or vastly improved campuses is all of a piece with the general building frenzy that fills every empty space in Hong Kong almost as you watch. Half of the university buildings are less than six years old.

Obviously, institutions away from the cluttered heart of the island itself or the equally packed district of Kowloon are better placed to expand laterally. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, created in 1963 from the federation of four existing colleges, sprawls picturesquely over a steep hillside just outside Shatin in the New Territories. By way of contrast, Hong Kong University, the territory's senior tertiary institution (it was founded in 1911), has no way to go but up in its expansion.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which opened in 1991, occupies a 150-acre site on the Clear Water Bay peninsula, with stunning views over a sea dotted with islands. There is more emphasis here on research with a strong practical slant than at some of the other universities which see teaching as their primary responsibility. Naturally, its equipment is thoroughly up to date; but then that is true of the university system overall, with 50 per cent of its equipment less than three years old. The School of Communications of the Baptist University of Hong Kong boasts as many as two well equipped film/television studios. The provision of IT everywhere is impressive.

To be sure, the picture is not entirely rosy. The move towards mass education has led to some drop in standards. Complaints by employers relate not so much to graduates' subject knowledge as to their communication skills. The problem is the reverse of the coin of Hong Kong's enormous advantage, viz, bilingualism. While some 98 per cent of its population are Cantonese speaking ethnic Chinese, the bulk of tertiary education is delivered in English. The burden of providing fluent English speakers rests with secondary schools which have not entirely managed to keep up the standard formerly taken for granted. To complicate matters further, incorporation into the People's Republic of China (PRC) has made everybody - not only academia - acutely aware of the need to master Putonghua (ie "the common language", which is now the politically correct appellation of what used to be known as Mandarin). Putonghua, different tonally and in vocabulary from Cantonese, will be the language for dealing with officialdom; it will be indispensable for anyone wishing to work in the PRC.

One of the immediate consequences of the hand-over will be even closer links between HK and PRC institutions of higher learning - even closer, that is, than the numerous ones existing already. In these exchanges the advantage may sometimes seem to lie with the more elitist, and hence better qualified, mainland institutions. But what Hong Kong has to offer is, on the one hand, familiarity with Western skills (business management, advertising, PR, etc), and on the other hand, bilingualism and, indeed, trilingualism. These advantages have already enabled quite a few Hong Kong graduates to obtain good jobs in the PRC.

But this head start will to be worked for in future: mainland China may well catch up soon, both as regards technical qualifications, and also a command of English.

At a recent cultural conference convened by the Department of English of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the distinguished American scholar Hillis Miller said in his summing-up: "The two world languages of the 21st century will be English and Mandarin." (He should, of course, have said Putonghua.) In this evolution the ex-colony will predictably play a sizable role.

What is clear - even in a clouded crystal ball - is that Hong Kong sees its future not only in being a key link between China and the West, but also as a vital intermediary for all the countries of the Pacific Rim and south-east Asia. The educational demands of this multiple role, in terms of contacts, facilities, scholarship and insight, are a daunting challenge that is already being strenuously pondered and actively prepared for.

The writer is Professor Emeritus, Bristol University.