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SEM's speech at the Education Forum for Asia 2005 Annual
Conference in Beijing
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    The following is a speech by the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Professor Arthur K C Li, at the Plenary Session of the 2005 Annual Conference of Education Forum for Asia in Beijing today (October 15):

Minister Zhou, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     It is my pleasure and honour to address such a distinguished audience at the Second Annual Conference of the Education Forum for Asia. So, first of all, I would like to congratulate the Beijing Municipal Government, Boao Forum for Asia, UNESCO and the China Scholarship Council for organising this remarkable event.

     The theme of this year's conference is "Education Development Strategies for Asian Countries in the New Century". This is a timely subject for Hong Kong, as right now we are undergoing major education reforms that will fundamentally alter the academic structure of secondary and higher education, and revolutionalise the learning experience of our next generations. As the Secretary for Education and Manpower of Hong Kong, I would like to share with you our experience in spearheading these reforms, as well as our vision for the future.

Hong Kong's challenges in the new centuries

     Like many modern cities in the Asia Pacific Region, Hong Kong is moving fast into a knowledge-based economy. The 21st Century has brought new challenges to us, and calls for innovative solutions. But unlike many modern cities in the region, Hong Kong is small. We have no natural resources to rely on; our single and most important asset is our people.

     Over the past decades, Hong Kong has strived to become the regional financial centre, and to lead in trade and high value-added services. These changes have exerted great pressure on our manpower supply. Total labour force in Hong Kong last year was just over three-and-a-half million, but our projections show that by 2007, we will have a shortfall of over 100,000 people with education at post-secondary level and above, and at the same time a surplus of 230,000 at or below upper secondary level. Clearly, the evolving job requirements are not in favour of persons with lower educational attainment. There is only one way to address this problem -- that is to upgrade the quality of our workforce, and we do this by upgrading our education services.

Education in Hong Kong

     In Hong Kong, education has always been high up on our political agenda. This year, education spending amounts to some HK$58 billion. It is our single largest expenditure item, representing 23.5% of total government expenditure, or 4.4% of our GDP. In absolute dollar terms, this is a growth of 54% compared to 1997.

     In terms of policy, we have put in place a well-established education system providing nine years of free and universal basic education. This is supplemented by a full range of education services at the pre-school, senior secondary and post-secondary levels. Almost all students who are willing to stay at school can receive senior secondary education or vocational training at highly subsidised rates. Competition at university entrance exam is, however, very keen. Even if you take into account the other education opportunities at the sub-degree level, by the end of the last century, only one-third of our school leavers could receive post-secondary education.

Increase post-secondary education opportunities

     This is why in 2000 we made it a policy objective to double the provision, so that in 10 years' time, 60% of our senior secondary school leavers should have access to post-secondary education. This is an ambitious target, but is necessary if Hong Kong is to remain competitive.

     Education is expensive, especially in Hong Kong where government is subsidising over 80% of the cost of university places. If we were to double the provision using that same funding mode, the burden on public finance would hardly be sustainable. So we recognised from the start that self-financing institutions should be playing an important role in the expansion of the post-secondary sector, with the Government being a supporter and facilitator. We have left it to the market to determine the number and types of programmes to be offered, while providing suitable incentives to encourage the development. These include HK$5 billion of interest-free loans; prime sites at nominal premium; student financial assistance; and a rigorous quality assurance mechanism.

     As a result, new service providers have emerged. We now have 20 self-financing institutions offering over 25,000 intake places at sub-degree and degree levels. The post-secondary education participation rate has also doubled, from 33% in 2000 to 66% this year. In other words, we have achieved our 60% target five years ahead of schedule.

     The major driving force behind this is the introduction of Associate Degree (or AD) into Hong Kong, as an alternative to other more vocationally oriented sub-degree programmes such as the Higher Diploma or Professional Diploma which have always been part of our education system.

     The new AD is remarkably well-received. It is now accepted by all our local universities, as well as some 150 tertiary institutions in 10 other regions or countries, for admission to their degree courses or for credit transfer. Outside the academia, 22 professional bodies from the business, engineering, finance, accounting, IT and logistics sectors recognise our AD qualifications for the purpose of granting exemptions from parts of their professional examinations. The AD graduates are also considered for appointment to government posts.

Our tertiary institutions' quest of excellence

     We are delighted to see our self-financing sub-degree sector flourish, but at the top of the knowledge ladder, our universities will always have a special role to play.

     In Hong Kong, we have eight institutions that Government funds through the University Grants Committee: the two oldest ones are comprehensive research universities; a younger one focuses on science, technology and business; there are also two polytechnics turned universities, one liberal arts university, one university which adopts a holistic approach to higher education, and one teacher training institute. Each year the government spends over HK$10 billion subsidising their operation, and this is on top of the prime sites and capital funds for their infrastructural development. To encourage institutions to diversify the funding source, we have also provided one-off grants amounting to HK$1 billion each to match the private donations they receive.

     We are confident that these are monies well-spent, because our institutions are ready to compete at the highest international level. They host Asia's best executive business management and hospitality programmes. They are also ready to venture into new niche areas íV like creative media, Chinese medicine and logistics. In terms of research, our institutions have produced impressive findings that gain global recognition. Our biomedicine researchers were among the first in the world to track down the culprit of SARS in 2003.

     Much though we would like to support their development, resources are limited. Our institutions must therefore focus their efforts strategically. We encourage role differentiation, and have introduced a special funding scheme to help them improve performance according to role. What we wish to see is Hong Kong's higher education sector developing as one force, with each of the institutions contributing in its own way and in a complementary manner.

Developing Hong Kong as the Regional Education Hub

     And where is this united force to work? Hong Kong being Asia's world city, our vision and ambition do not stop at the boundary. We aspire to serve the neighbouring areas, and be the Education Hub of the region.

     Hong Kong has a diversified system of education with internationally recognised curriculum and assessment catering to the needs of both the local and international communities. Non-local students are also drawn to Hong Kong's unique blend of Chinese and Western cultures: to those from Mainland China, we offer an international perspective in a familiar context; to overseas students, we make knowledge of our hinterland and China business much more accessible.

     We have also created an environment conducive to bringing different parts of the world together. All our tertiary institutions use English as the medium of instruction. Our Basic Law guarantees them institutional autonomy and academic freedom. We set no limit for the admission of non-local research students. For other publicly-funded programmes, non-local students can make up as much as 10% of the target student numbers.

     Student exchanges are part of our universities' regular academic activities. They can freely deploy government funds for this purpose, and we also encourage them to offer scholarships to high calibre non-local students. I mentioned that we have set aside HK$1 billion to match private donations received by our institutions. This covers, among other things, scholarships for non-local students.

     In terms of system readiness and the availability of resources, Hong Kong is fully geared up for internationalisation. What we need now are more international partners to make this a success. Perhaps there is no better occasion than an international conference like this to make an appeal, so on behalf of the heads of our eight institutions who are here today, may I extend our invitation to you all to join us in our internationalisation efforts.

The new "3+3+4" academic structure

     I have taken you through the blooms and new directions in our education system, but none of these will be sustainable unless we are prepared to inject new life into the system itself. To this end, we will implement, from 2009 onwards, a new academic structure for senior secondary and higher education.

     At the moment, our secondary school education follows a "3+2+2" structure. Under the new academic structure, all students will have the opportunity to enjoy three years of senior secondary education. Instead of drilling for two public exams in four years to get into universities, they will enjoy a much better structured curriculum, be able to spend more time on learning, and will have their educational attainment fairly assessed against recognised levels of competence.

     At the tertiary education level, a four-year undergraduate programme will replace the three-year one, giving our students more room for a more balanced personal development. The new academic structure will also align Hong Kong with a number of important international systems, thus facilitating the studentsíŽ articulation to institutions outside Hong Kong.

     Fundamentally changing the academic structure is a mammoth task. It cannot be achieved without the vision of educationalists, the determination of policy makers, and above all, the full support of all stakeholders íV parents, students, teachers, institutions, taxpayers, basically everyone in the community. Hong Kong has taken many years to reach this consensus íV and I am glad we did. In the coming years, the Government will have to put in capital funding amounting to HK$7.9 billion for works and one-off expenses, and thereafter an additional HK$2 billion each year to meet the recurrent costs. We have a long way to go, but we will press ahead with enthusiasm, knowing that we are making great strides in the right direction and implementing changes that will become a landmark of our education history.

Concluding remarks

     Ladies and gentlemen, in the limited time available, I have attempted to give you a broad picture of the opportunities and challenges for the education system in Hong Kong. It would not surprise me if you find the things that we have done or plan to do are familiar to you at home. It is hardly an over-statement to say that, despite the differences in cultures and education systems, all governments and institutions are moving along similar tracks. We are all trying to address socio-economic and technological changes in the New Centuries. This is why I said that this conference is particularly timely and useful.

     I hope the conference is just the beginning of a dialogue íV we will take it forward through continuous collaboration and sharing. With this in mind, I wish you all a fruitful conference, and for overseas visitors, a most enjoyable stay in our country. Thank you.

Ends/Saturday, October 15, 2005
Issued at HKT 14:00

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