As protests in Hong Kong stretch into their fourth month, Hong Kong’s economy is expected to face its first recession since the global financial crisis. On top of the immediate economic challenges, what worries society most is how to rebuild the trust between the young protesters and the establishment. As Hong Kong is the home of many rich philanthropists, it’s apropos to ask whether they can play a role in tackling the grievances widely shared by today’s young generation.
Despite the city’s low youth unemployment rate at 5 percent, affordability of higher education, upward social mobility and homeownership are often cited as the most pressing challenges facing our younger generation. Some philanthropists are already stepping up to the challenge. In the past few weeks, New World Development and Henderson Land have announced plans to donate land for housing and social welfare. The Li Ka-shing Foundation has also pledged HK$1 billion (US$128 million) to help small and medium-sized businesses. Yet, these plans only focus on housing and the economy, neglecting other pressing challenges that our disgruntled youths are facing.
The lack of upward social mobility ranks near the top of youth grievances. To improve the situation, education is key. While the government should take the lead in reforming the education system, from special education to vocational training, philanthropists can play a role in making quality education more affordable and accessible by all. In fact, Hong Kong has a long tradition in education philanthropy. The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, for example, is among the world’s top 10 charity donors, and education plays an important part in the trust’s philanthropic portfolio. But, the problem is that many donors prefer giving scholarships to only bright and outstanding students and not to those with the most financial constraints.
The lack of upward social mobility ranks near the top of youth grievances. To improve the situation, education is key. ... philanthropists can play a role in making quality education more affordable and accessible by all. In fact, Hong Kong has a long tradition in education philanthropy
There are three segments of students that appear under-resourced. The first is children with special educational needs (SEN). As of the academic year 2017-18, there are 20,710 SEN students in mainstream classrooms. Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism account for 51 percent and 42 percent, respectively. Despite billions of dollars having been spent on integrated education, the money mostly goes to schools but not the beneficiaries, and a vast amount of resources have been wasted in bureaucracy. Charity donors should consider providing financial and in-kind support, such as subsidies for SEN assessment, counseling or vocational training to SEN students and their families directly.
The second is students on self-financing degree courses. Currently, there are 15,000 publicly-funded, first-year-first-degree places funded by the University Grants Committee. But, the number is not enough to meet the demand. In 2018, for example, there were 21,264 students who qualified for publicly-funded universities. Consequently, many of them have to pursue self-financing degree courses. Even though there are government loans available, a survey shows that some students face debts of up to HK$192,000 at the end of the program, and there are cases of graduates having to repay their loans until they’re in their 40s. Philanthropists should consider providing no-interest loans to these students other than just giving out scholarships.
Last, but not least, students from lower banding schools also need support. As streaming secondary schools remains well-practiced in Hong Kong, it’s estimated that only 10 percent out of about 400 schools are labelled as Band 1, in which their students are often tipped to succeed in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination. The majority of students studying in other schools face severe stress and suffer from low self-esteem without alternatives to get ahead in life. Philanthropists, especially those with institutional capacity, should consider offering vocational training and internship opportunities for students to pave the way for a career without a university degree.
The four-month-long protests, which have deteriorated into wanton destruction of public infrastructure and private properties and street violence, are just the symptoms of some deep-rooted problems. Despite differences in political views, young people, who account for 9.5 percent of the local population, deserve the support of the establishment and social elite. We should help them cultivate a positive attitude in life with concrete assistance during their formative years. After all, they will be the future leaders of this great city. They must be invested in with the right values now so that they can lead Hong Kong to ever greater successes. Let us hope the current unrest would provide the catalyst for positive social and political change, and not allow it to tear us apart beyond repair. But we need to pull together.
The author is a communications consultant with experience in media, agency and private foundations. He advises local and overseas corporations, non-profit-making institutions and family offices.
HONG KONG NEWS