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LCQ18: Measures to encourage Hong Kong people to pursue continuing education
     Following is a question by the Hon Jimmy Ng and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Dr Law Chi-kwong, in the Legislative Council today (January 24):


     Some survey findings showed that the continuing education participation rate of persons aged between 18 and 64 in Hong Kong in 2013 was 25.4 per cent, which was lower than the 28.1 per cent of 2005 and far below the relevant rates in Singapore, the United States and Canada (which were 55 per cent, 55 per cent and 54 per cent respectively) in 2016. On the other hand, the number of claims made to the Continuing Education Fund (CEF) for reimbursement of tuition fees declined continuously in the past decade, falling from 73 138 claims in 2006-2007 to 19 912 claims in 2016-2017. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it has explored the reasons for the continuous decline in the past decade in the number of claims made to CEF for reimbursement of tuition fees; if so, of the outcome; if not, the reasons for that; of the Government's plans for promoting CEF in the coming three years;

(2) as the cumulative total amount of tuition fees reimbursable by CEF which a claimant is entitled during his lifetime is only $10,000 and that ceiling has never been adjusted since CEF's inception in 2002, whether the Government will consider raising that ceiling according to the rate of increase in commodity prices over the past 15 years; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(3) given that the tuition fees of quite a number of diploma and higher diploma courses are about $30,000 to $40,000, whether the Government will study raising the amount of CEF's subsidy for persons studying such courses; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(4) as some members of the public have expressed that web-based distance learning courses (including massive open online courses) are more flexible as they can pursue continuing education according to their own timetable and pace, whether the Government will consider adding this type of courses to the Reimbursable Courses List of CEF; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(5) given that the Singaporean Government has, in respect of employer-sponsored training courses, provided employers with (i) subsidies of 50 per cent to 95 per cent of the course fees and (ii) absentee payroll funding, whether the Government will consider adopting similar practices so as to encourage employers, through economic incentives, to allow their employees to pursue continuing education; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     Continuing Education Fund (CEF) was established in 2002 to encourage local workers to pursue further education by providing adults keen on further education with subsidies for continuing education and training. Since its establishment, a cumulative total of about 770 000 Hong Kong residents have already opened CEF accounts. The Chief Executive announced in her 2017 Policy Address last October that the Government will inject additional funding into CEF and enhance its operation. Upon completion of a consultancy study, user survey and review on the operation of CEF, the Government has earlier announced a series of proposed enhancement measures, including the relaxation of the upper age limit for CEF applicants to 70, the expansion of the scope of CEF courses, streamlining the administrative arrangements including the lifting of restrictions on validity period and maximum number of reimbursement claims, and enhancement of the quality assurance of CEF courses and safeguard for applicants. My reply to the Member's question is as follows:

(1) We note that, over the 15 years since the establishment of CEF, due to various reasons, including personal factors (such as the length of working hours, interest in pursuing further education, etc), trends of the labour market, and the courses offered by training institutions, the annual numbers of reimbursement applications received under CEF had slowed down in recent years after reaching the peak in the midway. We anticipate that the proposed enhancement measures after review, including the increased choices of CEF courses, enhanced flexibility for applying CEF and the relaxed upper age limit for eligible applicants, etc, could attract more residents to apply for subsidies and promote continuing education. Moreover, to tie in with the implementation of various measures enhancing the operation of CEF, the Office of CEF will continue to step up publicity through different channels to encourage the public to apply for CEF to pursue further education. Members of the public can also obtain information on CEF through the promotional channels of the training institutions providing CEF courses.

(2) The Government has earlier briefed respective stakeholders (including the Panel on Manpower of the Legislative Council) on the review results and the proposed enhancement measures of CEF, where we received many views including different suggestions on how the subsidy ceiling of CEF should be raised. We take note of the relevant views, and will consider the suggestions carefully.

(3) To avoid differential or even unfair treatment to learners of different courses, we think that it is not appropriate to set different subsidy amounts on certain specific courses. As a matter of fact, apart from CEF, the Government has been providing a number of subsidy schemes for specific trades or purposes to encourage the public to pursue continuing education. The general subsidising principle of CEF should be avoiding overlapping with those schemes.

     For example, in order to further encourage continuing education, the Education Bureau has implemented the Pilot Subsidy Scheme for Students of Professional Part-time Programmes (the Pilot Scheme) to provide tuition fee subsidy for three cohorts of students admitted from the 2016/17 Academic Year (AY) to designated professional part-time programmes offered by the Vocational Training Council, covering programmes in the disciplines of construction, engineering and technology. The Pilot Scheme aims at encouraging working adults to pursue higher qualifications which help enhance their upward mobility. Under the Pilot Scheme, successful applicants will be refunded 60 per cent of the tuition fees of eligible programmes, subject to a maximum of $45,000 per person. Applicants may apply for fee refund for not more than two programmes under the scheme. A total of 1 562 eligible students were benefited from the Pilot Scheme in 2016/17 AY.

(4) To safeguard the prudent use of public money, the subsidies disbursed by CEF are subject to appropriate regulation. Earlier when we started the CEF review in considering how the scope of CEF courses should be expanded, the principle of ascertaining that the institutions providing courses are located in Hong Kong had been confirmed, with a view to implementing the necessary regulations to assure the course quality and safeguard the interests of learners. The current proposed enhancement measures of CEF include the expansion of the scope of CEF courses to all courses registered under the Qualifications Register (QR), in order to meet the changing social and vocational needs and the long term development of Hong Kong. To be registered on the QR, training institutions and relevant courses must go through the quality assurance procedures conducted by the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ) or universities with self-accrediting status. At present, online learning programmes provided by universities with self-accrediting status can already be registered on the QR.

(5) Different regions or countries will base on the local development status and needs when formulating their own policies or measures to encourage continuing education. It is therefore difficult to make direct comparison among policies of different places. For instance, under an overseas scheme providing training subsidies to employers, part of the resources come from the "Skills Development Levy" imposed on the employers with an amount equivalent to around 0.25 per cent of the employees' monthly salaries. Such kind of mode is not directly comparable with the operation of CEF which only requires a learner to pay 20 per cent while the Government shoulders 80 per cent of the course fee subject to a ceiling of $10,000.

     The Government encourages continuing education through a basket of measures. Apart from CEF and other subsidy schemes, expenses on employee training are deductible under the profits tax regime so as to encourage employers to provide training for their employees. Moreover, to encourage the public to pursue further education and achieve self-enhancement, as announced in the 2017-18 Budget, starting from the year of assessment (YoA) 2017/18, the deduction ceiling for self-education expenses will be raised from $80,000 in the YoA 2016/17 to $100,000. The current deduction ceiling is already higher than the actual self-education expenses of the majority of the public. Separately, individual trade organisations or relevant Government departments have been providing sector-specific manpower training schemes and measures to promote the sectoral development.
Ends/Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Issued at HKT 14:00
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