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January 13, 1998

Hong Kong Six Months After the Change-Over

From the Perspective Of Public Education

by Edmund Tsang

Simon Lau, Chief Information Officer of Hong Kong's Department of Education, said "nothing's changed" regarding policy since July 1, 1997, when the British colony was returned to the People's Republic of China (PRC, as communist China is identified). The same senior staff members as in the last several years still run the department, which last fiscal year (September 1996 to August 1997) spent HK$20 billion (about US$ 3 billion) to educate 1.1 million students from kindergarten to Secondary 7, including special education and vocational and pre-vocational training. (Students completing Secondary 7 and passing the Hong Kong Advanced Levels exams are equivalent to undergraduates completing their first year in college in the U.S.)

There are of course practical matters related to the change-over that the department is still carrying out, according to staff members, like pasting over the "Her Royal Majesty" and the British Crown Colony symbols on leftover stationery and other printed materials that the department still had when the clock struck midnight, June 30, 1997.

The syllabi of subjects like Chinese history and government and public affairs have to be modified to take into account that China is now the sovereignty state and mainland China has its own version of the history of modern China. The current edition of the Chinese history textbook used by Form 3 students (equivalent to Grade 9 in the U.S.) contains the following changes from an earlier edition used during the 1993-94 academic year: In the new addition, the government of Taiwan is referred to as the Government of the Kuomingtong (Nationalist Party); in the earlier edition, Taiwan is referred to as the Republic of China. In the old edition, the army of the Communist Party as described in events during WW II and the war with Japan was identified as "the army of the Communist Party"; in the new edition they were called the "Liberation Army of the Communist Party."

The sentence, "it was agreed that USSR and the Communist Party extended a helping hand to the peasants and the laborers," is added to the section dealing with events in 1924 in the new edition.

On the section about Taiwan, six pages of text and photographs in the earlier edition were reduced to a half page of text in the current edition. The text for the sections subtitled "Taiwan's Economic Development," "Land Reform," "Attracting Foreign Investment And Expanding Exports," and "The Blossoming of Taiwan's Culture and Education," are the same in both editions, but one entire section, subtitled "Results," disappeared in the current edition.

This missing section reads (translated from Chinese): "In 40 years, there was rapid expansion of the economy. In 1992, the net worth of its people totaled US$2,110 billion; individual wealth of US$10,215, which is close to the U.S. In 1991, the total exports were valued at US$1,390 billion and was ranked 14 in the world. The capitol reserve of US$800 billion ranked it either first or second in the world. The rapid economic growth of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore made them known as the four dragons of Asia."

It's no big secret that Tung Chee-Hwa, the Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region (SAR, as Hong Kong is now officially called), wants more instruction conducted in Cantonese and/or Putonghau (the official dialect of the PRC). But the recently-announced change, in which some secondary schools can continue to use English for instruction while other schools will change from English to Cantonese, has actually been discussed by department staff for ten years, according to one senior official in the Department of Education. Concerns over low test scores of primary and secondary students and lack of sufficient teachers qualified to instruct in English were the driving forces behind the announced change on the languages of instruction for secondary schools, which filled the airwaves of radio talk shows and competed with stories about the H5N1 bird flu and the economic downturn in southeast Asia in newspapers and TV news.

If PRC has any policy changes in mind for Hong Kong concerning primary and secondary education, for public relations purpose it will probably wait a while to announce it, said an official who asked not to be identified. The change-over did lead to some tangible changes for the Department of Education, according to this official. For one thing, as the composition of Hong Kong's legislature has changed since July 1, this Department of Education official said staff members had been called upon to testify before the legislature less often. The guess is that the current group of legislators appointed by China are mostly businesspersons, who have less time than the counterparts whom they replaced, who are freely elected.

The History of Public Education in Hong Kong at a Glance

Public Education in the former British colony began modestly. Even by 1965, subsidized primary education (Primary 1 through 6, equivalent to Grades 1 to 6 in the U.S.) was made available to only 80 percent of all children of primary-school age, and only 32 percent of the population in the 12-18 age group attended secondary education. Secondary education consists of Form 1 (equivalent to Grade 7 in the U.S.) to Form 5 (equivalent to Grade 11 in the U.S.), at the end of which students take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). Based on the results of the HKCEE, the top students continued in a 2-year matriculation program, at the end of which they take the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination administered by the Department of Education in conjunction with the Hong Kong University.

In 1965, only 18.3 percent of those who completed primary schools received a subsidy to attend secondary schools. Secondary students still had to pay HK$350 in school fees to attend government-run or government-aided grammar schools run by non-profit organizations. In 1965, the government spent HK$ 153.7 million (US$26.9 million) to education 650,142 primary, 172,918 secondary, and 3,960 matriculation students.

Free and compulsory universal Primary Education was not made available to Hong Kong's students until September, 1971. Under the legislation passed at the time, "The Director of Education was given powers to order parents to send their children to school."

According to the 1973 Annual Report of the Department of Education, 7.8 percent of the 704,536 primary students were enrolled in schools operated by the government, while a substantial portion, 73.9 percent attended government- subsidized schools operated by non-profit organizations like schools affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church; the remaining 18.3 percent attended private school.

During the same period, the government provided a free secondary education to 268,162 out of 301,096 students in government-run schools, subsidized non-profit schools, and bought-places in private profit-making schools. In 1973, there were 14,033 matriculation students. The government spent $728 million in recurrent costs and $71.8 million in capital cost for education.

In September, 1978, free education was extended to all Form 1 students (equivalent to Grade 7) and made compulsory by September 1979. Education up to Form 3 became free and compulsory beginning September, 1991. The government now subsidizes the tuition for more than 90 percent of the students attending Form 4 to Matriculation. Even with the subsidy, students still have to pay a tuition of about HK$1,000 a month to attend Anglo-Chinese schools operated by non-profits organizations such as the Jesuits, that are highly regarded by parents for using English as the language of instruction.

For the 1995-96 school year, the government spent HK$34,000 million, or 22 percent of its total recurrent expenditure and 6 percent of capital expenditure, for education. There were 467,718 primary school students, where instructions were carried out in Chinese; 459,845 secondary students, who enrolled in grammar schools, prevocational schools, and technical schools; and 23,480 matriculation students. Sixty-nine out of the 466 secondary schools receiving government subsidies used Chinese for all subjects except English; for the rest, English is used as the language for instruction in courses other than Chinese and Chinese history.

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