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Rev Father Cyril BARRETT




Rev Father Cyril BARRETT

Doctor of Social Sciences
honoris causa

It is a great honour for me to thank, on behalf of my fellow graduates and myself, this University for conferring on us its highest award. Furthermore, I must thank the University for inviting me to address this congregation on their behalf.

I am very conscious that I speak in this great hall where many students annually go through the agony of taking their Advanced Level Examination, knowing that thought they may achieve, through their innate ability and dedicated work, a level of performance far higher than is required by the University, they may still not be able to win a place, where too there has been the ecstasy for the lucky few who used to assemble here for their conferring amid the pomp and circumstance of the annual congregation. Those who completed their schooling and entered university in the late thirties or even in the late forties, when university places were readily available, cannot possibly understand the mental strain and anxiety of the young people today.

Such thoughts turn my mind to the educational scene in Hong Kong and the problems we have to face. It is the wise headmaster who, no matter how satisfied he may feel with the progress of his school, will from time to time wish to measure its standards against those of other schools through public examinations. I believe that Hong Kong, too, must occasionally take a look at other countries to measure the progress of its own development. This is especially true in education because, since we started almost from nothing after the war, we rightly consider that great progress has been made both in primary and secondary education. However, since we started so far behind other countries, the extent of our progress could flatter to deceive.

Mr Chancellor, I have been associated with Hong Kong almost from the very beginning of its post-war recovery and I am intensely proud of all that it has achieved. To me, it ranks with the great city-states and trading-ports of the past that are now part of history: the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon 3000 years ago; Corinth and Athens in the days of Greece's greatness; the Chinese cities of Ningpo and Kwongchow whose commerce stretched from Japan to the Red Sea and the coast of Africa; and the Italian cities of Genoa and Venice, one associated with the discovery of America, the other responsible for opening trade between Europe and China. Hong Kong has, in fact, achieved immeasurably more than these in trade and commerce; for those cities had few rivals to contend with and their exploits were set in a world quite tiny in comparison with the vast wealth and great number of countries today. Hong Kong outdoes, in many fields, not only the great cities but the great nations of the world. It is the leader in the export of garments, first in the production of toys and first in the export of watches. It is second only to the mighty United States in its shipping. It is the third greatest container port after New York and Rotterdam, and it yields only to New York and London as the greatest financial centre in the world. And, lest anyone conclude that we are a grim community of workaholics, Hong Kong leads the world in the proportion of families owning television sets and in the per capita consumption of French brandy.

To be the envy and the model of so many countries in our region and a cause for alarm, at times, among the great importing nations of the world is quite an extraordinary achievement within the short space of thirty years, and, I firmly believe, our achievements are only beginning. Hong Kong is a phenomenon that happens rarely in history. It is a unique amalgam of British orderliness and freedom with Hong Kong flair, hard work, initiative and daring. There is no place that I know of which has such a complete lack of resources and yet has made such an impact on the world of trade - no resources, that is, except the people themselves. The strength of Hong Kong today comes from the strength of its community, and the future of Hong Kong and its prosperity will depend on the strength and initiative of that same community. If we are to maintain our position among the nations in the future we must be able to meet the challenges of changing demands for our goods and services. It is abundantly clear that we can do this only by a constant upgrading and improvement in what we have to offer the world. In short, there must be a continuing improvement and sophistication of the technical and professional skills of this community through the education that is provided. The present world recession is, perhaps, a timely reminder that we must never become smug or complacently relaxed in our efforts to update, to vary and to use the very latest technology and research in meeting our needs.

For many years now, Hong Kong has used, albeit on a very modest scale, the educational system of Britain as a yardstick in the provision of education. That system, suitable though it may have been to Britain and to Hong Kong in the past, no longer seems to meet our special needs. Britain is blessed with an abundance of raw materials. It has a lot heavy industry and many of its people have the good fortune to own land or property. There is not therefore the same urgent need in Britain to acquire education and skills in all their forms as tools for livelihood as in Hong Kong. Here, the only security and possessions that 95% of the people can hope to own is the education and training they acquire. Because of this, the people here prize education above all else and need it, not only to enlarge the mind but as a vital source of their livelihood.

Our first need, therefore, is for a great increase in the provision of pre-vocational and technical schools. I fear that in Britain vocational education in the past had come to be regarded as something provided in a Borstal institute. In the UNESCO statistics for 1981, among the 141 countries listed, Britain ranks exactly 100th in the provision of vocational education, just above Lesotho and below Tonga. Vocational and pre-vocational education is not an education for dropouts but for the keen and eager with initiative and practical skill. At its best, it teaches a solid core of academic subjects and it inculcates in the students a respect for their own skills and work and a pride in their achievements. So successful has it been in Holland and Germany that job satisfaction and pride in work are at a very high level and the quality of work has increased greatly. Labour disputes and strikes have diminished to an astonishing degree. The efforts here in Hong Kong to introduce pre-vocational education fifteen years ago met with strong resistance, chiefly on the grounds that the people did not want it. It was claimed that, given a choice, all would want a purely academic education. Today we have twelve pre-vocational schools, and, I am happy to say, the number of technical schools has increased in that time from seven to twenty-three. But what is far more important is that the skeptics have been proved wrong. Last summer one quarter of all students choosing places in Form 1, chose pre-vocational or technical schools. To meet this demand, it would be necessary to build thirty-five more pre-vocational and forty more technical schools. When we consider that Holland, which has the same problems of population and land shortage as Hong Kong, gives this kind of education to 40% of its young people, it is something of a shock to discover that Hong Kong provides it for less than 8% of our Form 1 children. How can we be surprised if there are disciplinary problems in schools and juvenile delinquency on the streets when more than 92% of our children are compelled to take a purely academic education at secondary level? There is no way in which such a proportion can benefit or take an interest in such an education. One final observation that offers hope for the future: in the past few months Britain has suddenly discovered the value of vocational education. Appalled by the great mass of unemployment, the government has realised not only the need to provide large training schemes for the unemployed but also the fact that, if skilled training had been provided in the first place, Britain could have competed more successfully in the markets of the world and altogether avoided its present crisis. Hong Kong is fortunate in having made some start in such education and, now that it is clear that parents welcome it, should take the utmost advantage of this in order to prove our people with a secure means of livelihood and maintain our position in the world.

It is now more than twenty years since I appealed in a speech for two more colleges of technology to be built, on Hong Kong Island and one in the New Territories. At that time the population was just three million. Today we have a population of more than five million, but we have made little headway. More polytechnics are urgently required, not only for teaching the latest methods that modern science is continually pouring out but also as a goal to challenge the best out students on the vocational stream and make them reach for higher standards. It is gratifying to learn that our single polytechnic is to offer degree courses in the autumn. It should not be, however, at the cost of places needed for non-degree courses. That would be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

What I have to say about Britain's attitude towards vocational education must also be applied to university education. Although Britain offers university places to five times the proportion of students that Hong Kong provides for, the British situation is considered to be far from satisfactory. In an article in The Observer for January 2, the writer says, "With 13% of young people in degree courses, this country (Britain) continues to allow a smaller proportion of its young people into higher education than any other developed industrial country...a fact which must seriously inhibit the inculcation on a large scale of the advanced skills required for a modern economy". If Britain, with university places available for 13% of the age-group is seriously handicapped in its industrial and commercial development, what of Hong Kong with places annually for only 2.5%? For our targets in post-secondary education we should look rather to those countries whose problems and backgrounds more closely resemble our own. We should look to Japan with its vast urban population and its rebuilt war-shattered economy, to Holland with its dense population, to Switzerland, which must depend on its light industry and financial services, or to Greece which relies on shipping and tourism for its economic prosperity. The level of higher education that these countries consider necessary for their people should be the model for Hong Kong.

Mr Chancellor, the expansion of our higher education in Hong Kong has suffered from the very kindness of other countries. In the years after the war, when Hong Kong's social services were being painfully rebuilt from the ruins, generous countries like Canada, Germany, Belgium and Holland came to our aid with help that continued well into the sixties. It was equally true that many countries like Australia, Britain and the United States helped us greatly for years by taking large numbers of promising students, free of charge or on scholarships easily available, to be educated at higher level. It was not, I fear, realised in time that the hidden subvention must, like the rest, come to an end and that Hong Kong would be expected to bear its own burdens. One by one the doors have been shut on cheap education overseas. Britain and Australia have already added considerably to the cost of education for overseas students. Canada is in the process of doing so and the United States is no longer in a position to offer the many grants and scholarships of former years. The time has come when we must be prepared to shoulder fully the obligations of providing for third-level education as naturally as we now provide it for housing, social welfare and medical services. It should be considered neither a luxury for the few nor an investment that brings no return. On it depends the professional and technological expertise that will keep Hong Kong in the forefront of the trading and commercial world and so guarantee the livelihood of the people and a full return for the money spent through the continued prosperity of this place.

There is one other compelling reason why higher education should be greatly expanded and that as soon as possible. We have always felt the need to build up a community spirit in Hong Kong and many have lamented that this has been so difficult to achieve. In the years ahead, this community spirit and loyalty to Hong Kong will be more precious than ever. The young people have been accused in the past of setting their eyes on distant countries and of having no interest in the place where they were born. I have come to believe that this is quite untrue. I returned recently from visiting Hong Kong students in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States. Wherever I went, I found in them an intense interest in everything about Hong Kong and a great pride in all that is achieved. They miss their families, their friends and all the familiar environment that would make their studies so much easier. Indeed, many expressed to me their regret that they could not continue their studies in Hong Kong. There are some, certainly, that go because the family is wealthy and can afford the very best in university studies; others go because, though they have no more than average ability, they can find some college and course of studies that will benefit them. Too many, however, go if they can find the money, because, though they know that they are worth a university education, they see little hope of it if they remain in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, I am sorry to say, holds on more world record, now that Iran has relinquished the doubtful honour: Hong Kong stands above all nations in the world in the number of its students who are studying abroad.

For most of them going abroad is a great hardship; some I have met must study under very difficult conditions. Having been forced to go overseas and having overcome so many problems in the course of their studies, it is hardly surprising if quite a number of them, when they have achieved success, decided to accept what is offered overseas and remain where they are. Among them there are, alas, many who have done brilliantly and are a real loss to Hong Kong. From those I have met in high posts, not only in the academic field but also in the world of business and with the governments of Canada and Australia, I can only conclude that we have suffered a grievous loss of talent from among those who should today be the backbone of Hong Kong. It is to be regretted that so much goodwill and ability cannot be used in Hong Kong now when their value would be paramount. Whatever we can do to stop this outflow of our best should be done before it becomes a haemorrhage that will be difficult to arrest.

More pre-vocational schools, more technical schools and institutes, more polytechnics and a doubling of university places in the short term with a rise in places to 10% of the age-group by the end of the century will, undoubtedly, add greatly to the cost of education. Funds, obviously, are limited, but there is no doubt that funds do become readily available as soon as the pressing need, such as the need for the MTR or the High Island Reservoir, is clearly seen and accepted. I believe that we are now in a situation where the best insurance for our future lies in the high educational standard and technological skill of this community. It is time for a very special effort in this area.

A national or community crisis can wonderfully concentrate the mind. I remember well, when I first came to Hong Kong in 1951, how the hillsides were covered with squatters' huts and many a rooftop too had one or more families there. There were absolutely no plans to re-house these refugees who daily poured across the border since, it was claimed, once there was good housing provided, the number of refugees would be double. Besides, it was said with some truth, there was no money. Then, on a bitterly cold night in the winter of 1953, just thirty years ago, 50,000 refugees were burnt out of their homes in a vast fire in Shek Kip Mei. The very next day, committees met to consider the situation and from that was born one of the greatest housing programmes that any country has ever undertaken. Today, it is the pride of Hong Kong and the wonder of visitors from all parts of the world. I would venture to say that this housing programme did more than anything else to steady the people here during the turmoil of the late sixties. It showed the people here that the government was committed to Hong Kong; was concerned for the welfare of its people and that Hong Kong did truly provide them with a home.

Today Hong Kong faces another turning point in its history. Over many aspects of our destiny we have, perhaps, little control. One thing can be done if swift action is taken. We can still build up the structure of an extremely sophisticated and articulate community, a community that will have its roots here because it is educated here and whose professional and technological skills will be so advanced that they will be too precious to put at risk.

On the question of cost I have a few suggestions to make, at least in connection with the expansion of university places. It seems to me that it would be possible to reach the first target of places for 5% of the age-group at university level within the structures of the existing universities. With the present drop in property values it should be possible to rent or purchase sufficient space to meet the need at reasonable cost. I have elsewhere suggested the ideas of converting flatted factories or office blocks in suitable localities close to the main transport arteries, if possible, rather than overcrowding the existing space on the campuses of the universities or risking the long delays that new buildings will involve. I have visited more than thirty universities overseas during the past two years and was always impressed by how simple and unpretentious many of their buildings are. On the Berkeley campus of the University of California I noticed a large two-storey Student Advice Centre. It was made of clapboard and was fifty years old. There were no plans to replace it. Perhaps the cost of expanding our educational facilities might be more palatable if simple rather than prestigious buildings were planned. Certainly, it would encourage more benefactors to come forward. If the number of university places could be doubled in this way under a crash programme it would go far to meeting the short-term target within about   five years. There is a Chinese saying: "騎牛搵馬", which means, roughly, that you travel on an ox until you can find a horse. The squatters who lost their homes in Shek Kip Mei were very happy to move into Mark 1 resettlement blocks that today would not be considered fit for decent housing. I feel sure that, once the commitment has been made to expand rapidly, an administration which had the ingenuity to create an airport in the harbour or join and island to the mainland to create a freshwater lake, would not lack the ideas for the creating of university accommodation. The building of a third university, with all the planning and recruitment of staff involved, could then be completed and ready for use in the late nineties.

I have suggested before, and do so again, that the Northcote College of Education should be drawn into the university expansion scheme by providing specialised courses in the teaching of Chinese and English leading to a bachelor's degree in Education. These courses are urgently needed for the improvement of language teaching in our secondary schools. In this way, quite a few places in degree courses could be provided at little cost.

There is also the question of students going abroad for their education. According to the best figures that I can obtain, the total amounts to more than 54,000, including secondary school children whose parents send them overseas because they have a better hope elsewhere of entering university. The total cost to the parents in fees, travel and living expenses amounts to a staggering HK$3 billion annually. If we allow that a large number of these students would not qualify for further education in Hong Kong even if they were available and that some others would still wish to go overseas, there must be at least one billion dollars sent abroad for education annually that might well be channeled into meeting local costs, if sufficient places were provided. Many parents would be willing to pay higher fees for their children locally if they were saved all the additional costs of education abroad and the family distress that is involved, always providing that students in need get special consideration.

A question that may be lurking in the minds of some is, of course, the actual quality of the students who fail to get university places in Hong Kong. I do know many students who were unable to get places in the University of Hong Kong but who did brilliantly overseas. Overall statistics are, however, hard to come by. Happily the Universities Central Council on Admission (UCCA) does analyse admissions into British universities each year. According to their figures for 1980, 34% of the students who applied from Hong Kong were admitted. The total was 1,055. The Hong Kong students were also the best among those who applied from nearly forty countries.

I have made loud appeals, over the past two tears, for help to students of ability who could not get places locally and did not have the funds to study overseas. Certainly I still maintain that well-qualified students for whom no place has been provided locally should be subsidised for studies abroad but I would consider this an emergency programme. If we could offer adequate places here for the deserving I would not wish a singe one of them to go abroad except for courses that are not provided in Hong Kong. The immediate task, especially in the present circumstances, is to proved, as quickly as possible, such places as would meet the needs of the economy and the reasonable expectation of the community.

What can Hong Kong be reasonable expected to spend on its education? After the difficult post-war years when rehabilitation was the first priority, the expenditure on education rose to an average on 19.74% of the annual budget and so remained for ten years from 1968 to 1978. This was an acceptable figure and much progress was made. However, in the two following years, 1979 and 1980, it dropped to an average of 17.5% and in the succeeding two-year period it dropped further to an average of just 14.5% of the annual budget. In view of the desperate need for more technical education and university places this is a frightening change in priorities. I have calculated that in the past four years there has been a shortfall of more than HK$3 billion dollars in the sum that should normally been devoted to education. It is a development that I find difficult to understand.

But, with the development of Hong Kong into a world economic force, we should, rather, measure our performance against the other countries of the world. In the latest figures published by the World Bank and the Far Eastern Economic Review Yearbook for 1983, Hong Kong stands among the top 30% of the 189 countries listed in the per capita income, growth and even in gross domestic product. Yet, in the amount that we allot to education compared with our GDP we stand far down the list of world rankings: in eighty-fourth place out of 109 countries in 1974 and, lower still, in 109th place out of 130 countries in 1978. I cannot find later figures. We stood then just a fraction above such troubled countries as Uganda, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. As this community has been responsible for the achievements and wealth of Hong Kong: wealth generated not by such fortuitous resources as oil-wells but by its own ingenuity and hard work, I believe that it should enjoy in return no less a percentage of that wealth for its educational needs than is the average for the countries of the world.

Whatever the future may hold and whatever decisions may be arrived at in connection with educational policy over the coming decades, I feel that I am safe in saying that there is nothing the people of Hong Kong value more than educational opportunity, whether because of tradition or reason of their economic needs. I further believe that nothing would have greater impact for good at this time than the generous provision of technical and professional education at secondary and post-secondary level. It would be the best possible guarantee of the future prosperity and stability of this community.

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