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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