The recent HSC results together with the announcement of Laureate scheme winners, provides an opportunity to come back on a few aspects of our education system and on the wide-ranging reforms being undertaken by the Ministry.
First, we have all felt the fantastic sense of achievement and shared the joy of rectors, staff, parents and those adolescents who, after several long years of determined and dedicated effort, have emerged into the top grades as Laureates, ready to accept the boon and challenges of higher studies in an overseas university of international repute. It is the start of new journey where their chosen alma mater should open up their horizons and help bring their budding personalities and abilities to a new state of fruition and prepare them for a meritorious career, hopefully at the service of the country.
They will be joined by bursaries on social grounds and other HSC top-graders, many of whom may engage in the same paths of overseas education, while others may find suitable outlets at the large variety of public and private tertiary institutions, some offering decent higher education and internationally recognised courses locally at moderate costs.
While genes, the individual abilities of students and social and family environment are essential ingredients to successful studies, there will never be enough recognition for the countless teachers, rectors and staff, who will mark each and everyone’s progress along some 20 years of formal student life. Some may have turned us away from a particular domain, others instilled in us a passion for a subject area or a professional future activity, and perhaps a few challenged us to probe deeper into meanings we could easily take for granted. Most of them will remain deeply etched in our memories, one way or another.
I still remember for instance two highly regarded mathematics teachers in my later college years. One was a remarkably smart, focused student-driver for whom equations, problems and their rigorous solutions filled his study periods, his very collective intensity leaving little room for ordinary folk who hadn’t grasped the beauty of mathematical theorems, proofs and certainties. The other, getting us more sedately through our expected paces, was wont to spare time for individual students, occasionally throwing an unexpected choice morsel that, I later realised, could have scientists flummoxed even today.
Like when he prodded gently, what is gravity? or how do you define time? leaving me, after such body blows, speechlessly wondering at the too pat structure of my otherwise correct mathematical demonstration! Needless to say, I failed to connect with either for different reasons but they remain remarkable science grandees of my final college days! Our genes and individual merits provide the building blocks; the moulding influence of some dedicated primary and secondary teachers, the quality of the college support, influence the sometimes untrodden roads we take and help shape our future passions, destinies and careers. I trust that graduating college students, while taking stock of priority fields of study, will also manage to follow their own dreams.
As we all know by now, those of our Colleges which have over the years acquired their reputation and fame, have turned out the greater number of laureates, boys or girls. But, in a remarkable tribute to changes rolled out in 2005 to establish, beside the National Colleges, a network of seven-year Regional Colleges, several 2016 laureates emerged from that sphere of meritorious but “non-star” institutions, which has been widening year after year. Whether stimulated by emulation or liberated by better staffing or wider availability of internet resources, many have been maturing over the past decade.
More and more parents and students in the countryside no longer feel the overriding need to attend an often distant National State College for a quality education. Both the national and the regional structures, in parallel to private and confessional establishments, had their role and importance in bringing quality public education to all corners of the island over the past twelve years. It is that patient build-up of efforts and the dedicated efforts from regional colleges, teachers and parents, and the resulting national equilibrium in democratic access, that the ambitious and wide-ranging Nine-Year Schooling Reform plans should avoid jeopardising.
Problems to assets
Of course, the Education Reform plans go much wider than the academic pursuits of those who have the intrinsic abilities and determination for university studies, and so they should. Nobody can condone the ongoing situation, where despite massive funds, more than a quarter of our children come out of primary schools with barely any numeracy or literacy skills. The phenomena of “décrochage” leading to “échec scolaire” are no doubt complex: some students are bored by traditional studies; some don’t have the aptitude for college; some would rather work with their hands; some are unhappy at home and just need to get away, and many others suffer traumas from disjointed parents or a difficult family context.
Past approaches have included such things as ZEP schools, bridging the gap, summer schools or pre-vocational education and much more could perhaps have been done to better structure those initiatives into a coherent package, interesting many more of these children into personal and student development, turning them from societal problems into societal assets. We trust educators at the Ministry have got it right in proposing an end to these initiatives, which will be replaced by early in-class academic remediation followed by automatic roll-over of former “CPE-failures” onto more complex college studies, where, they trust, another 25% won’t come out as “Form III failures”. How effective will be those experimental changes remains an open question.
In parallel, most industry and society analysts have been poring for long over the “education mis-match” and the lack of many trained and skilled tradespeople in several domains, despite the best efforts of the HRDC or the MITD and its dozen or more training centres. Even with the three new announced Polytechnics, these remain mostly geared to those students who have a basic command of English, Mathematics and some O-levels or A-levels. For the bulk of students who are struggling with academic education from primary to early secondary, there are no real structured solutions to hook them up onto practical and skill-based training, through a coherent combination in which practical, pre-vocational, apprenticeships and other study-cum-placement scenarios could have been developed with the help of MITD/HRDC into a coherent whole. The Reform plans are sadly under par in that respect and should be beefed up.
The final domain where the Ministry seems still at the stage of thinking out its options concerns our publicly-funded University or post-secondary education and research. A European Union study and report was commissioned eighteen months ago and must have submitted its report. The Minister has promised a Higher Education Bill some time back. However, although there is no doubt some legal tweaking required, what has been sorely missing for more than fifteen years is a strategic higher education blueprint or master plan rather than a Bill per se.
The laudable creation of a separate tertiary education ministry did little to further that front and, if anything, made matters in some respects worse and controversial. We won’t dwell, but surely the conditions are right for a better strategic look at the present challenges and the desired future in the tertiary education and research domain, a key factor to the developing local economy in a volatile world.