Overseas education: overpriced and under par


SCMP October 6

The high unemployment and low salaries facing Hong Kong's new graduates raise the interesting question of the nature of courses and the returns on investment in higher education. Specifically, it should raise the issue of the value of Hong Kong residents, for whom local higher education is very cheap, investing large sums in overseas education.

Frankly, observing as a parent, what looks like the slow but remorseless trashing of educational standards in Britain, I am even more amazed that Hong Kong people spend so much to get degrees at any but the best universities and courses overseas. Standards in the United States always varied widely, but the proliferation of institutions in Britain and Australia with "university" attached to the name of what was once a lesser institution has lead to huge variations in entry standards and course quality.

The lowering of the quality of A-levels in Britain - the ticket to university entrance - is at last recognised as a national scandal, but has yet to be addressed. As a result, holders of three As (top grade) at A-level are almost two a penny, so the best universities have trouble choosing the top students. Meanwhile, other universities offer the holders of three Cs entry to courses in what ought to be difficult subjects such as philosophy and physics.

The alternative International Baccalaureate exam offered by some international schools in Hong Kong is far more demanding, yet the British continue to treat the top mark in this as no better than three As at A-level.

Expansion of university places in Britain and Australia has coincided with government squeezes on funding and stagnating numbers of locals in the 19-23 age range, to cause both a lowering of standards and an ever-more desperate search for foreigners who can be charged large fees. It has also been accompanied by a relentless trend towards soft subjects, and a parochialism more in keeping with Britain's tabloid newspapers or the reputation of its football supporters than with higher education with a global reach.

The next time anyone from Durham University comes around trying to sell to Hong Kong its virtues as an ancient centre of academic distinction, remember this: it has just decided to close its East Asian Studies department, and end undergraduate studies at its Middle East and Islamic department.

I know this only because my elder son is studying in the department to be abolished. Of course, I have an interest. But so should anyone interested in the future of Britain or its educational system.

Durham, Britain's third oldest university, has been one of only a tiny handful in the whole of Britain to offer degree courses in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. It was one of three universities (the others being Renmin in Beijing and the Free University of Brussels) engaged in the Asia-Link programme, being funded by the European Union as part of efforts to increase Asia-Europe co-operation through higher education networking. The Middle Eastern and Islamic Institute at Durham has been internationally renowned for years. There is also an Oriental museum attached to the university, featuring Chinese and Ancient Egyptian exhibits, as well as Arabic and Persian work.

The self-serving academics and bureaucrats in charge of this university want to make money from overseas, while throwing out courses in the languages and culture of the part of the world which is expanding fastest economically. Also disappearing are courses on the Middle East, an area of critical direct importance to the future of all Europe.

Apparently these courses did not attract enough students to be deemed worthwhile. That may be hardly surprising. How many British students with a few Bs at A-level want to face the hard slog of learning an Asian language when they can pick up a degree in some easy humanity or social science? Durham is to spend more on law and English, as though Britain did not have more than enough law and business-school products and English graduates incapable of communicating in any other language.

A study of the British university admissions website reveals that 60 institutions offer courses in media and communications (about as intellectually undemanding a subject as one can find), 115 in recreation, sport and tourism, 63 in drama and dance and 45 in applied social work. Chinese and Japanese alone are offered at only five universities, Korean at two and a mix of Asian languages at nine.

Durham's shame has attracted little attention in Britain, even though its supposedly internationalist prime minister, Tony Blair - intent on bringing democracy to the Arab world - represents a constituency which adjoins Durham. Nor has there been a squeak from Chris Patten, who, with his Hong Kong background and role as European Union External Affairs Commissioner, might be thought to have an interest.

How does this connect with Hong Kong's problems? First, it underlines the need for the pursuit of excellence or practicality rather than sheer numbers or "education for its own sake" at tertiary level. Second, it underlines the fact that the only advantage that many Hong Kong students gain from overseas education is not the quality of courses, but fluency in English. Fix that, and Hong Kong people can save a lot of money and tell the people from Durham to go back to the obscurity of northeast little England, where they belong.



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