If education reform is a priority in Singapore and Australia, why not in Hong Kong?

As the chief executive’s policy address approaches, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has the opportunity to create a new and vibrant education system. The world around us continues to change at a rapid pace. Yet, across all sectors of education in Hong Kong, there is little creativity or acknowledgement that change is needed.

The government’s review of the school curriculum drags on with little opportunity for public debate or discussion. The vocational education sector continues to be weighed down by poor public perceptions and underfunding. The University Grants Committee continues to restrain universities by measuring inputs and outputs, rather than supporting creativity and growth. The whole system is stagnating rather than innovating.

In other jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Australia, the reform of education is high on the political agenda. Although Singapore tops international assessments such as Pisa, its government wants students to do more than pass tests and examinations.

The Australian government has received a landmark report that recommends replacing national testing with more formative assessments that can help all students to learn. The focus in both jurisdictions is on students and how they can be better prepared for a challenging future – a future which is driven by technology and artificial intelligence, and which will need to be harnessed with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

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The reform of education in Hong Kong needs to be system-wide. Schools need to be able to provide curriculum experiences that allow students access to the latest thinking in maths, science and humanities. There is important content in these subjects but also significant processes linked to critical thinking and problem solving.

Singapore, for example, is reorienting its exam system to ensure these skills, rather than rote learning, figure prominently. All students in Hong Kong – especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – need to have access to these skills. But graduates of such a system need to have relevant post-school options.

The vocational education system needs upgrading to focus on fields relevant to the city’s future development. It cannot continue to be the second choice for those who do not get into public universities.

Countries such as Germany have shown how a well-regarded and funded vocational education system can propel innovation in strategic areas of development. Linking vocational education institutions and universities in Australia has demonstrated the kind of synergy that is possible when all elements of an education system work together.

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In number, Hong Kong universities are few. Yet in terms of performance, as measured by international rankings, the quality is high. However, the vision of universities is constrained by the grants committee, as demonstrated by the recent case of City University’s veterinarian programme.

It was only the vision of the university’s president that drove the programme’s development. Now Hong Kong has a much needed public resource, but it took a decade to convince the UGC. Universities are natural places for innovation and they must be allowed to play their roles, without the burden of external regulation and intrusive oversight.

If the universities are not centres of the city’s innovative culture then funds are being wasted. If the UGC spends more time nurturing innovation and less time measuring and auditing, Hong Kong’s universities can scale even greater heights.

A massive reform is necessary after the stagnation of the past five years. It is an agenda that may not please everyone. Unsettling the way things are done, setting new directions and expecting better outcomes will be challenging for many people already in the system.

Yet the alternative is to do nothing or make marginal changes that will not make a difference. Hong Kong’s future can be brightened by a proper functioning education system producing at all levels graduates who can be change agents and innovators in their different areas of work.

It will take courage to expect changes across a broad front. Yet such expectations have to made clear, so individuals and organisations can step up and do what is required.

Far from faddish, they are changes needed to meet the future needs of Hong Kong and its young people in a challenging national and international environment. It is to be hoped that the chief executive is up to the challenge.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong

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