Published: 00:55, June 24, 2022 | Updated: 09:04, June 24, 2022
STEM and education are keys to economic future
By Brian Yeung

As Hong Kong approaches the date for a change of government, our society is holding high hopes for the next administration to tackle the deep-rooted problems previous administrations have struggled with without much success. Foremost of which is the pressing need for education reform.

However, Hong Kong takes pride in its education with good reason, at least on paper. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 show that four universities in Hong Kong are among the top 100 institutions worldwide, two of which also made it into the top 50.

But such a world-class education is accessible only to a few lucky enough to secure those heavily subsidized university places. For many others, they struggle to self-finance their tertiary education. Currently, only 15,000 first-year-first-degree places at the eight universities are publicly funded, meaning just one-third of qualified candidates could receive such financial support. But the quota falls short in covering all qualified students, which included 42.3 percent of students in 2021.

Some of those who are unable to obtain a place have to pursue self-financed degrees in the hope of better employment opportunities after graduation, and many had to take out loans. The debt could reach HK$192,000 ($24,460), and repaying it could take as long as 20 years, according to a media report.

Tertiary education is crucial for nurturing local talents, and failure to provide such educational opportunities to those who qualify for it represents inestimable losses for the individuals concerned and our society as well. Hong Kong’s prosperity and progress hinges on the constant recycling and resurgence of new talents in the workplace.

To popularize university education, one way would be for the special administrative region government to team up with the private sector to provide more subsidized university places for qualified students. A tax-exemption program could be introduced to incentivize more businesses to offer financial support as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda.

Equity in higher education is one thing. Filling the skills gap is another. As Hong Kong looks to transforming itself into a rival to Silicon Valley, with ambitious plans announced in 2021 to develop an economy that is fueled by technology and innovation, we are confronted with a major hurdle — a serious mismatch in the demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talents and the lack thereof! But it’s not difficult to pinpoint the origin of this conundrum — the traditional Chinese bias toward white-collar jobs, i.e., bankers, financial services managers, etc, whereas the blue-collar sector’s engineering jobs are deemed second-rate in the subconscious perception of trades and occupations. Needless to say, this antiquated thinking has got to go.

If only more people understood that Germany, Europe’s most economically powerful country and one of the world’s most technologically and scientifically advanced countries in the world, has built its economic and industrial successes based on society’s respect for engineers, scientists and technologists. That means they are duly recognized for their contributions and handsomely rewarded. The country’s manufactured goods are renowned for their quality, and they are popular around the world despite commanding premium prices. In short, Germany’s success is an object lesson to parents who think STEM subjects should preferably be their children’s second career choices. And it does not take an Einstein to see that STEM graduates would be gobbled up by the present and future job markets, which are trending toward high-tech manufacturing, research and development, and related industries.

Presently, this is bad news for employers, who struggle to find employees with job skills relevant to the future economy, in which artificial intelligence and big data play a vital role. A survey conducted by Google in 2019 revealed that 64 percent of corporations in Hong Kong said that staff with STEM qualifications are the hardest to find. Blame it on the cultural prejudices that have been a hindrance to a more-accurate understanding of the changing job market!

Research from Varsity also found that university STEM programs are often considered “safety net choices” — just something for students to fall back on in case they fail to make it with their first choice of study. The result was the scarcity of high-performing students with genuine interest to work in STEM-related fields. This is an early warning that Hong Kong could be losing its competitiveness, with prospective employees underprepared for the future economy.

This calls for Hong Kong to promote STEM education no later than starting in the secondary grades so that nascent interest in these subjects can be further cultivated. Given the paucity of interest in schools and in the workplace, it is little wonder that Hong Kong’s ranking in science under the Program for International School Assessment, also known as PISA, has dropped from second in 2006 to ninth in 2018. This also includes an above-average 25-point decrease in mean science scores.

Meanwhile, students are not taking STEM subjects. In 2019, more than half of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination candidates did not take any science-related subjects, and only less than 15 percent studied advanced mathematics.

In fact, Hong Kong is not completely lacking in STEM education resources, but some of the STEM subjects are yet to be incorporated into the core curriculum and the STEM education efforts are not unified among schools. Currently, each school relies on its own in-house expertise in introducing STEM to its respective students. What is needed is for the SAR government to take the lead in collating and coordinating our ample STEM expertise and resources to create a robust and effective STEM teaching program for all schools, taking on board the views and needs of the labor market, business and industry.

In 2017, academic Professor Ng Tai-kai pointed out how STEM resources have been misplaced, with students not obtaining skills most relevant and applicable to the workplace; schools focus on theories and applications of innovative technological products, whereas technological firms value experience in information and communications technology. This situation has not changed much in the last five years.

The world is changing fast, and so must education to keep pace with the changing needs of the job market. Hong Kong cannot afford to miss out on the potential of students by failing to provide the affordable higher education they deserve. Meanwhile, the teaching of STEM subjects needs to be overhauled, modernized and popularized, even glamorized if that’s what it takes to grab hold of our students’ attention! Because our future economic relevance and our students’ future work-skill relevance depends on it.

The author is the co-founder of Brianstorm Content & Brandstorm Communications and co-author of Six Future Skills You Should Learn Now.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.