Costly it may be, but higher education holds the key to producing diverse professionals needed in a knowledge-based economy. Given the sector's importance, last week's budget was a disappointment devoid of any new insights into bolstering the city's quality of human resources through higher education, academics say.
The government has taken "one small step forward" in helping young people from a poor background gain access to higher education.
But there isn't any major financial plan to make possible a comprehensive strategy to turn Hong Kong into a global talent hub, says Joshua Mok Ka-ho, associate vice-president for external relations at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
"Talent is very important to Hong Kong, and I am very worried about the city's long-term competitiveness if nothing is done to improve the quality of our population," he says. "Higher education can play a key role in enhancing our population's competitiveness."
Hong Kong's Asian neighbours seem to be doing a better job. Singapore's Global Schoolhouse project, begun in 2002, has attracted world-class institutions, such as The University of Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, to set up operations there.
"The government has been talking about making Hong Kong an education hub for some years," Mok says.
"There is a sense of direction. Yet nothing has been put forward to implement the idea or collaborate with other countries and Asian universities."
The government's lack of long-term strategic planning is also reflected in its preference for rolling out instant sweeteners.
For instance, an additional 11,000 post-secondary students are expected to receive a full tuition fee grant, thanks to the proposed relaxed income ceiling for financial assistance. The budget also proposes injecting HK$250 million into the government's scholarship fund that will benefit students enrolling in publicly-funded subdegree programmes.
"These measures can surely help students who are financially in need," says Alvin Leung Seung-ming, dean of Chinese University's faculty of education. "But they are more about distributing resources to help students resolve issues of tuition fees or daily expenses, rather than directly investing in schools or allocating more resources to education and upgrading the learning environment."
Fung Wai-wah, convener of the Alliance for the Concern of Subdegree and Self-financed Education, says schools running such programmes often lack resources to improve their curriculum, given the high cost of running them. Meanwhile, students have to pay high tuition fees for programmes with less recognition compared with publicly financed degrees. He suggests giving a voucher worth HK$20,000 to HK$30,000 to each self-financed student, so that the schools and students can benefit.
Fung adds that Hong Kong needs to produce a diversity of talent to reconfigure itself as a well-balanced economy. "The demand and supply of human resources in Hong Kong leans heavily towards the business discipline, which is an unhealthy development," Fung says. "Many associate courses are commerce-related. But do we really need that many business professionals?"
Tips for ‘lifelong learning’
START SAVING EARLY Assess your financial commitments and estimate how much you will need to save in order to enrol in a programme. Draw up a monthly saving plan that is flexible enough to cope with potential problems.
ASK YOUR COMPANY FOR A SCHOLARSHIP This may not apply to all situations, but there’s nothing to lose in trying to get a sponsorship. Let your boss understand how the education can contribute to your job performance.
WRITE A BUDGET AND STICK TO IT Write down a financial plan and make sure you don’t exceed it every month. It lets you track your income and where your money goes.
STAY FOCUSED As a young adult, you don’t do a postgraduate degree for fun. Stay focused on your career plan and use higher education as a springboard to achieve long-term goals.