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Remarks by SEM at the East Asia Economic Summit


The following is the transcript of comments made by the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Mrs Fanny Law, at the East Asia Economic Summit plenary session on "Educating for Innovation" today (October 30) (English only):

I am really honoured to be among this panel of learned and distinguished presidents and vice chancellors of renowned universities in this region, to discuss a subject which is really dear to my heart: Educating for Innovation. And I must congratulate those who are present in this room this morning because I know there is very strong competition from another plenary session. But you are really far-sighted in seeing that ultimately, the success of an economy depends on the quality of its human resources, and education therefore holds the key to the future.

I think everyone in this room would agree that in a knowledge economy, new ideas, innovation and ingenuity in the development of products and services are essential for the success of a company or an economy in an increasingly competitive world. And it has been estimated that the store of human knowledge is doubling every ten years and the pace is accelerating.

So maintaining a balance between depth and breadth of learning is a major challenge for education. The emphasis of education must shift from the traditional way of one-way teaching and dispensing of knowledge, to facilitating students in exploring and constructing knowledge for themselves by developing the skills of assessing information, of making connections, of seeing the logic behind it, and of applying them to new situations and developing innovative solutions on their own. In other words, students have to learn how to learn.

Well, this is a stark contrast to the traditional rote learning and examination oriented type of education that Asian students are so used to. I agree with Arthur that rote learning is not evil in itself, it is the balance, and rote learning is needed for the basics. But if it is taken all the way up to the secondary school or even the university level, then it is excessive.

But it is also interesting to note that in this introduction we refer to the Indian experience, and last night I had the fortune of meeting an Indian delegate who was here to attend the Business Leaders Meeting on IT and I asked him this question: What is the factor of success in your education system? And without hesitation he said: The traditional way of teaching. So there are obviously different views which we can discuss later on.

Some people see creativity and innovation as a natural capacity and doubt if these can be taught, which is Arthur's point of view. And I have heard Professor Chu saying that innovation cannot be taught but can be nurtured. I tend to agree with Professor Chu on this count. We believe that everyone is born with some innovative or creative capacities that can be further developed through education. There are skills of creative thought and production that can be developed, but more importantly, I think education has to provide the right environment and ample opportunities for students to express their own ideas, values and also feelings, and to take risks - being told they are wrong and then reflect and learn through that process.

The problem we face in education today is not so much about academic standards but the narrow focus on just one aspect of human intelligence. To develop human resources to the fullest extent we must provide opportunities for all to explore and develop their individual potentials and intelligences, through a balanced curriculum and a challenging process of teaching and learning.

Since its establishment the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has accorded top priority to education and human resources development as our response to the challenges of the knowledge economy. Education is the single biggest item of public expenditure and despite the economic downturn the government is determined to continue to invest heavily in education and the CE has promised that education investment - we call this an investment rather than consumption - will continue to increase over the next ten years.

We have basically adopted a three-pronged approach to upgrade the quality of human resources. We think university is too late. There is a book called 'Kindergarten Is Too Late'. So we have to start from an early age. First of all, we institute systemic and structural reforms to free students from the straightjacket of high stake examinations. Not giving up standards but throwing away some of the more closed questions that we have in public examinations which has led to drilling and passive learning. So in removing these high stake and rote learning type of examinations, we free up time and space for all-round development and for self-directed learning.

Second, we reform the curriculum and the pedagogy with a view to inculcating in our students the skills and attitude for innovation and lifelong learning. We expect our teachers to use imaginative approaches to make learning more enjoyable and more inspiring, so that students are intrinsically motivated to learn. And we believe that this intrinsic motivation underlies lifelong learning. Without this motivation lifelong learning will remain an aspiration rather than a reality.

And to inculcate and promote the habit of lifelong learning the Chief Executive announced in his recent Policy Address the establishment of a HK$5 billion or US$600 million Continuing Education Fund. The fund is directed at adults aged at 18 or above who attend recognized courses that will contribute to the economic development of Hong Kong.

People of Hong Kong already have a long-tradition of diligence and respect for education. According to a recent survey, some 700,000 people, or about 20 per cent of our workforce, are already engaged in some form of self-directed learning, making continuing education a multi-billion and fastest-growing business in recent years. So entrepreneurs in this room may wish to consider this area of business. What we will be doing is to channel the energy of these 700,000 people, and more to come, to economic growth areas so that they will find greater satisfaction and even better returns through their learning, and provide positive reinforcement to further lifelong learning.

Third, we provide more diversified education opportunities to suit individual differences and interests, with the aim of developing individual potentials to the fullest extent. Our aim is to increase the participation rate of post-secondary education from the present 30 per cent to 60 per cent in ten years and we will attain that through a market driven system of programme providers that are more responsive to changes in the market. University presidents will hate me for that because these courses would be self-financing and we will subsidize students instead of the institutions.

Of course, in this process of expansion, we are mindful of the possible trade-off between quality and accessibility, and we have learned a lesson from the expansion of our university education over the last decade. And as we expand further we also have to think strategically what we expect our universities to achieve. And in a comprehensive review of higher education, which is currently being undertaken by our University Grants Committee, we shall examine the issues of governance, mission and social responsibility, funding, accountability and quality assurance.

Universities are indeed not insulated from the influences of globalization and new technologies. In the knowledge economy, universities have to be just as entrepreneurial as their business counterparts. And I am very pleased to hear that in Japan and Thailand privatization seems to be the trend. We are similarly considering this in Hong Kong. Global alliances have also emerged to share resources, facilitate student mobility and also to spread excellence more extensively.

Universities, I agree with Professor Shih, do have a social responsibility to train leaders of our society and to support the social and economic development of Hong Kong. However, the reward systems at present in universities do not encourage innovation in teaching and learning, or practice-oriented research which are considered to be more relevant to the needs of industry and the local economy, and we may have to find other incentives to engage our academics in assisting in the economic restructuring.

As innovation is critical for survival in the knowledge economy it is also important that small and medium enterprises, which make up more than 95 per cent of business establishments in Hong Kong and which are the drivers of innovation and employment, should be able to tap into the expertise and the research capacity that are available at the universities. Finding the right balance between the university's mission as a teaching institution and knowledge generators, and between their responsibility to the academic community and the public at large, is a tricky issue.

But we do have non-conforming and innovative vice-chancellors, as you can see sitting on this panel, who sometimes are my headaches - and I also see vice-chancellors in the floor among the audience - they are sometimes my headaches, but more often, I must say, a source of inspiration and a pleasure to work with. And I am sure that, together with them, we will find a solution.

Education, indeed, holds the key to our future. Countries throughout the world are reorganizing their education systems to cope with the rapid social and economic changes arising from globalization. And today's forum has given us a valuable opportunity to share ideas and experiences and I do look forward to the open discussion.

End/Tuesday, October 30, 2001


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