Schools: No Tiger

Behind a roaring economy is a second-rate education system. The new government will face the tough chore of an overhaul

Pun Tin Chi pauses in a school hallway as students hustle by on their way to recess. They have to hurry, since they only get 15 minutes on the cramped playground. Pun, headmaster of the Tsui Lam school in Hong Kong's New Territories, wishes they had more time. But the sons and daughters of truck drivers and waitresses who live in the towering housing estate that looms over the school are part-timers. The children, well-scrubbed in their blue and white uniforms, don't even start school until 1 p.m. Another school shares the building, with its students attending in the mornings. "Hong Kong looks so rich," sighs Pun. "But we always find we don't have enough money for education."

Hong Kong is a Tiger economy with a second-rate education system. Teachers, parents, politicians, and businessmen agree that when the new government led by C.H. Tung takes over, it urgently needs to fix the schools. The problems run deep. Some 85% of primary school students attend part-time because there aren't enough school buildings. Among Asia's fiercely competitive schools, Hong Kong's students score lower in math and science than rivals in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although they do quite well compared with some large Western nations such as the U.S. In the universities, professors complain about students ill-prepared for higher education. And in the workforce, employers complain that graduates are poor in both English and Mandarin, the city's two languages of the future. One reason is that Hong Kong's colonial rulers put little value on educating the local population.

The new leaders promise change, vowing to turn Hong Kong into a 21st century high-tech hub for China. New schools, smaller classes, better teachers, and computers are all on the agenda. Hong Kong's universities will seek the top students and professors from China and Southeast Asia, with local companies helping to pick up the tab. And they want graduate schools to work closely with local industry, providing the research and technology to take on high-tech powers around the world.

GROWING PRESSURE. There's a political side to this agenda, too. Once Hong Kong is again part of the Middle Kingdom, Tung and his team want students to identify with China. That means changing how textbooks explain subjects like the Opium War to give students more of a Chinese perspective. They also want better instruction on Chinese culture, literature, and values. "I'm not afraid of patriotic education," declares Antony K. Leung, Tung's education guru, who is angling for ways to make the Hong Kong workforce more competitive. Such changes will surely score points with Beijing's leaders.

But an education overhaul won't come cheap. While Beijing wants Tung to keep tight control over spending to keep taxes low and foreign reserves high, Hong Kongers are demanding that he loosen the purse strings for the schools. There will be growing pressure to dip into Hong Kong's massive foreign currency reserves to pay for better education. Hong Kong spends just $4,158 per student, compared with the $6,000 to $9,000 per student spent in the West and Japan.

Reformers also are considering ways to improve students' language skills. The first plan is to change almost all secondary education from English to native Cantonese. Now, students are taught in Cantonese in primary school. Then they switch to English at the secondary level. The result is they master neither their lessons nor either language. "Their skills are low in Chinese as well as English," complains Marjorie Yang, chairwoman of garment supplier Esquel Enterprises, which employs 32,000 workers in factories around the world. "When I worry about the loss of Hong Kong's competitiveness, I worry about education."

BEST AND BRIGHTEST. With more public dollars going to elementary and secondary schools, Hong Kong wants its universities to reach out to business. One of the leaders is the City University of Hong Kong, a compact campus in the center of crowded Kowloon. The three-year-old university has set up a holding company to cooperate with Hong Kong companies such as V-Tech, a computer and toy manufacturer. Professors and graduate students from the school's engineering departments are working on projects such as underwater robots, advanced wireless headphones, and transmission of closed-circuit TV pictures over telephone lines. Says Managing Director H.Y. Wong: "The university has to get involved in how to help society to be competitive."

Business-university cooperation will help further another of Tung's goals: turning Hong Kong into a hub for southern China. A key educator in the new campaign is City University's president, H.K. Chang, a Taiwan-born engineering professor who was recruited by Tung from the University of Pittsburgh. Chang says Hong Kong's universities should start forming research alliances with companies throughout southern China. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, which have big, prestigious universities, Guangdong province is something of an educational backwater. The future, Chang says, should be a regional education system that knits both sides of the border.

Hong Kong's educators know that to really shine, they need to attract the brightest minds from China. Here, too, they are enlisting business help. Hong Kong Baptist University has asked local corporations to provide scholarships for lower-income mainland students to study in Hong Kong. Understandably, on some campuses such talk is causing jitters. Patrick Wong, a 22-year-old engineering student at the University of Hong Kong, says he and his classmates are worried about their counterparts from across the border. "Those are great students," says Wong. "I'm afraid of this competition from China." Since many Hong Kong companies are keen to employ mainlanders, Wong says some recent graduates who can't find good jobs in Hong Kong are going in the other direction and heading to China.

Students may worry. But at Tsui Lam school, Headmaster Pun is hopeful that his school will benefit from the handover and the new political regime. By next year, his students will have four new classrooms and a library. Students may even get a break from the sweltering heat if the government allows Pun to install air conditioners. But there's a catch: Worried about high costs, the government won't pay for the electricity, forcing Pun to ask parents to foot the bill. The government may never be generous when it comes to education, says Pun. But at least it's a start.