(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 3 May 2017.)
The recent report on Science, Technology and Mathematics Education (or the Tsui Lap Chee Report) issued by the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong finds our secondary school curriculum and university admissions criteria have under-emphasised science education, and that this will hamper prospects in the new economy.
Another education failure, not the subject of the Tsui Report, is the underinvestment in senior secondary and tertiary education for at least two decades. This has been the leading cause of our lackluster economic performance.
Both failures should be corrected at the same time for the sake of Hong Kong’s economic future.
Domestic and foreign investments are attracted to localities where they can recruit the necessary skilled manpower. For a small open economy like Hong Kong, an abundance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates is absolutely necessary for attracting business investments in the new innovative technology economy.
Many commentators and even economists blame our failure to develop new innovative and technology industries on the government’s misguided belief in positive non-interventionism.
Much of this criticism is ideologically motivated rather than evidence based. It is not obvious that facilitating institutions and a pro-active policy to correct market failures and capital market imperfections, and provide preferential tax treatments and land subvention advantages for innovative and technology industries, can compensate for the lack of skilled manpower. The latter is a prerequisite for attracting investments in the new economy.
I subscribe to what I call the ‘Gobi Desert’ narrative. Adopting the best institutions and policies in the middle of the Gobi Desert will not spawn new industries because no one is willing to go there to live. It will remain empty and desolate.
In Hong Kong, among the population aged 25-34 in 2011/12, only 34.7 per cent had university degrees versus 49.3 per cent in Singapore. Among those aged 35-44, the corresponding figures were 24.8 per cent and 40.4 per cent. Is it at all surprising that Hong Kong has lagged behind Singapore in new economy activities given our inability to attract educated and skilled workers and our failure to invest in education?
This does not mean that everyone will become a scientist, engineer or technologist. But it does mean more and more jobs will require workers to possess scientific and technological know-how. Workers in the new economy must possess an understanding of the fundamentals and principles of science and technology to engage in lifelong learning.
Government policy can address the problems of attracting skilled workers to Hong Kong but it must also address the greater challenge of developing home-grown talent.
In this regard, curriculum reform in the schools and admissions criteria of the universities should be revisited.
Nearly half of senior secondary students have no exposure to a science subject. Moreover, students taking advanced mathematics have dropped from 23 per cent in 2012, when the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) was introduced, to 14 per cent in 2016.
Moreover, over two-thirds of the students sitting the HKDSE examinations took only two electives due to overemphasis on the four core subjects—English, Chinese, Mathematics, and Liberal Studies. Before 2012, students took on average four elective subjects outside three core subjects. The dominance of the four HKDSE core subjects crowd out electives and effectively stream students away from science.
The Tsui Report recommends trimming the core HKDSE subjects to achieve better balance between science and non-science subjects. It does not recommend which ones to trim, but Liberal Studies is an obvious target, which could either be dropped or changed into a pass-fail subject. This would create room for more students to pursue a balanced choice of elective subjects between science and non-science subjects.
It very sensibly recommends module flexibility for science subjects to cater for a range of aptitudes among students, and greater recognition of advanced mathematics to encourage its inclusion as a core subject.
It also calls for universities to review their admissions criteria to redress the imbalance between core and elective subjects to achieve a better balance between science and non-science subjects.
The inclusion of Liberal Studies might have stemmed from noble intentions to train critical thinking, but the skills learned are more compatible with non-science than science electives. The large majority of students, especially those with self-doubt about abilities, have chosen non-science subjects in a bid to improve their public examination scores as they compete for heavily-subsidized scarce university places.
Liberal Studies is often mistaken for a ‘liberal arts’ education, which it is not. The latter is a conception of university education that covers a balance of humanities, social and natural science subjects, and generally refers to studies not relating to professional, vocational or technical education. Given this, dropping Liberal Studies from the HKDSE core will better prepare students that wish to pursue a ‘liberal arts’ education.