Hong Kong’s success in PISA – One system, many actors

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

Hong Kong is perhaps the PISA top-performer about which I knew the least. So, on the invitation of the authorities, I took a few days of annual leave to learn more about this system. It turned out to be a very rewarding experience. What interested me most was to find out how Hong Kong, with its market-driven approach in virtually every field of public service, had been able to combine high levels of student performance with a high degree of social equity in the distribution of educational opportunities.

With the majority of schools run by private entities, the government has few levers for direct intervention and parents have a powerful influence on schools, both through their choice of schools (though still banded) and through local control. They sit on school management committees, parent-teacher associations and on home-school co-operation committees. Permanent Secretary Cherry Tse concluded that parents have more influence on what happens on the ground than the Education Bureau. The vibrant cyber-community has added to the tremendous pressures on schools to maintain a high quality of education.

Most leading newspapers have education pages that deal on a daily basis with policy debates as well as disputes in schools. Ruth Lee, an inspiring principal from Ying Wa Girls’ School, one of Hong Kong’s elite schools that I visited, explained how principals and teachers face a daily struggle to balance administrative accountability, client accountability and professional accountability while keeping their focus firmly on nurturing well-rounded children and helping parents see beyond their children’s entry to university (the backdrop for this is that schooling in Hong Kong used to be the domain of philanthropy and it was only when the economy gathered strengths in the 1960s that the government began to chip in with subsidising education).

Education as a cross-government priority
All that does not mean that education isn’t a government priority. On the contrary, at 23%, Hong Kong devotes more of its public budget to education than any OECD country, realising that it is talent that transforms the lives of its citizens and drives its economy. What struck me even more was that education isn’t just the domain of the Education bureau, but that it features high on the agenda of virtually every other government agency too. For example, Robin Ip, Deputy Head of Hong Kong’s Central Policy Unit explained how important the development and deployment of talent features as a cross-government priority. His unit provides the eyes and ears of the Chief Executive across the different government departments and builds advice on how Hong Kong can maintain its competitive edge in areas such as financing, trade and shipping, nurturing emerging industries (education included), and deepen economic co-operation with mainland China. And when I visited the Ministry of Finance, Salina Yan, Deputy Secretary for Financial Services underlined the deep commitment of her sector to both nurturing local talent in the financial domain as well as attracting the most highly skilled from abroad. Also Ho Wai Chi, Assistant Director of the Independent Commission Against Corruption and his team explained how that agency deploys almost a fifth of its staff to education and community relations throughout the territory, with the aim of moving the agenda from fighting corruption to preventing it, and building a climate of trust in the rule of law and the institutions protecting it. That includes work on a secondary school curriculum that builds confidence in the rule of law, deals with ethical dilemmas and seeks to change the agency’s image from sending people to jail to sustaining the system. Hong Kong’s move up to rank 12 on Transparency International’s index of perceived corruption, and perhaps even more so, the fact that over 70% of corruption-related complaints are now posted non-anonymously, illustrate how far along the way Hong Kong has come – compared to the 1960s when corruption and a climate of fear and violence had been endemic in virtually every aspect of life. On the plane leaving Hong Kong for Shanghai I saw the front page article of the South China Morning Post quoting the chief prosecutor as demanding that not even the Chief Executive should be immune from prosecution.

Educational reform
I had interesting sharing sessions with Permanent Secretary Tse, Under Secretary Chen and his Deputy and Assistant Secretaries, the head of the Assessment Authority as well as leading academics from the major universities on key educational reform challenges in Hong Kong and the world around it. Hong Kong aims high in its educational ambitions, both as a systemic goal and to meet individual aspirations. It is always difficult to say which of the factors observed are due to cultural assets and which are due to policy interventions and practices. They are intertwined. But it is intriguing to see how Hong Kong has drawn together educational experience from the Eastern and Western world to design a world class education system. You see that in everyday life too, they treat their guests with the hospitality of the Chinese way but queue on the bus the British way.

2012 is a year of particular importance for Hong Kong’s education system; it is the first year in which the generation that has gone through the new integrated education system will graduate. Results from PISA suggest that Hong Kong is on the right track, showing high performance standards as well as important improvements in students’ metacognitive skills and confidence as learner. But the test of truth will come in August when the new Diploma of Secondary education will be handed out, a day that school leaders, teachers, parents (and not least the administration) are anxiously awaiting. The learner-centred reforms underlying this new system have been far-reaching, paralleling similar developments in other high performing education system. They involved significant expansion of educational opportunity as well as a shift in emphasis from teaching to learning, from fact memorisation to development of learning capacities, and from economic needs to individual needs. The broadened and more flexible curriculum seeks a better balance between intellectual, social, moral, physical and aesthetical aspects, with much greater emphasis on transversal skills including foundation skills, career-related competencies, thinking skills, people skills as well as values and attitudes. The reforms have also included more funding flexibility in support of schools. All of this has pushed schools and teachers to take a professional stand and exercise professional autonomy within a collaborative culture.

And yet, it is clearly visible that education in Hong Kong faces serious tensions. It is the tension between what is desirable for the long-term and what is needed in the short-term; between the global and local; between the academic, personal, social and economic goals of the curriculum; between competition and co-operation; between specialisation and attention to the whole person; between knowledge transmission and knowledge creation and between the aspiration of a new innovative curriculum and a powerful private tutoring industry narrowly focused on exam preparation; between uniformity and diversity and between assessment for selection and assessment for development.

The system is now also more subject to the political economy than what used to be the case: Since reunification with China, policies are no longer determined by technocrats, but by politicians with an eye on re-election. With teachers and school leaders a large and vocal part of the electorate, maintaining the high quality examination and assessment regime is already proving a struggle. So far, policy makers have also shied away from any consolidation of the school system which seems inevitable in light of the demographic shifts with rapidly declining student numbers – if Hong Kong wants to avoid a downward spiral of rising costs associated with shrinking school and class sizes that drive out needed investments for attracting and developing teachers and the establishment of a 21st century learning environment.

An amazing environment
Another surprise for me has been Hong Kong’s beautiful landscape. What I knew from Hong Kong was the sprawling urban environment that looks like built by SimCity (with the disaster function turned off for a long time). But it took just an hour with the Government Flying Service to turn that impression upside down. Soon after the helicopter had left the Government complex the landscape was dominated by forests, natural parks and wetlands known by birdwatchers that cover 70% of the territory. As Robin Ip and his staff from the Central Policy Unit explained, maintaining a balance between the immense pressure to expand urban development in order to provide affordable housing, on the one hand, and preserving Hong Kong’s natural and cultural heritage, on the other, will be an ever-tougher challenge. The incoming administration will no doubt be tempted to hand out sweets by developing new housing, but the resistance this will meet at local levels from town planning board and environmental activists should not be underestimated. This is Hong Kong. You will see some demonstration almost every day and you have to make your way to the HBSC headquarters through the tents of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Right across the boundary I could see the endless city of Shenzhen of China’s Guangdong province covered in smog, which does not seem to weigh such tradeoffs between economic development and the environment, and which has now absorbed virtually all of Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry. Close to a quarter of a million people pass the massive crossing points of Lok Ma Chou and Man Kam To each day, illustrating the rapid integration of Hong Kong’s economy with that of mainland China.

One-China, Two Systems
Can the ‘One-China Two-Systems’ policy be sustained in these circumstances or will Hong Kong simply be submerged? Different from twenty years ago, the distinction between the two systems can no longer be discerned from a helicopter, it is no longer visible in the infrastructure and hardware. When it comes to the ‘software’ though, the institutions and rule of law, Hong Kong’s autonomy seems yet unchallenged. At a meeting in the Department of Justice Paul Tsang, in charge of treaties and law, explained that, so far, there had just been three cases with questions about the interpretation of Hong Kong’s basic law – and all initiated by Hong Kong. Moreover, agreement has now also been reached on the mutual enforcement of law, such that cases can be heard in Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and then be enforced in mainland China. I also met with Daniel Cheng, Deputy Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs and his colleagues, who oversee the implementation of the One-China Two-Systems policy and who are the guardians of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and independent judicial system, to learn more about the implementation of this policy. This was another instructive briefing session and what struck me most was how much mutual benefit both Hong Kong and mainland China derive from this. There are some obvious areas, such as the growing trade and the division of labour that serve both parts well, or the “firewalled” currency policies which Hong Kong offers for mainland China through the emerging offshore trading of the RMB. But it seems Hong Kong provides a testing ground for mainland China in many other areas too, and mainland China seems to learn fast from the ways in which Hong Kong does things and how its institutions operate. Paul Tsang recounted how Hong Kong’s assistance to the regions affected by the great earthquake in Szechuan had fundamentally changed the ways in which companies and the authorities in the area establish business relationships and contracts. So the return on the 80m Euro assistance which Hong Kong had provided for disaster relief will no doubt be high – and for both sides. Both sides are keen to consolidate what has been achieved and the complementarities and synergies between the two systems are now enshrined in China’s five-year development plan.

But not everybody is so confident that this will work out in the long term. At the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, I met Representative Alan Leoung, who was deeply suspicious about the viability of the One-China Two-Systems policies, fearing that Hong Kong will end up with elections Chinese style (where everyone can vote but some opaque nomination committee will hold the gateway as to who can stand for election). He was already much concerned about the functioning of the political system today, where the functional constituencies guarantee vested interests a firm base in parliament, and where the 4m Hong Kong dollar in funds raised by the opposition parties compare against over 70m Hong Kong dollar raised by the parties supporting the government.

Perhaps it is the financial sector that will provide the most reliable barometer for the successful implementation of the One-China Two-Systems policy. Judged by that standard, Hong Kong has so far moved from strengths to strengths since reunification. Salina Yan’s office is located right next to the Chief Executive’s Building, and that is not just by coincidence. This is a country in which the Secretaries for Finance and Justice rank higher than any other government minister. Salina Yan portrayed an impressive trajectory for how Hong Kong had evolved into the international banking and asset management centre and open insurance market that it is today, with a market capitalisation that ranks 6th in the World and 2nd in Asia. Over a quarter of Hong Kong’s GDP now comes from trade and logistics, another 15% from financial services and 13% from professional services. Well over a third of the employment is in the financial services.
It is only logical that Hong Kong is a staunch supporter of the multilateral trading system including its principles of non-discrimination, with no tariffs on imports, no subsidies for exports and a level playing field for foreign and local enterprises. Rigorous international benchmarking and peer-learning are omnipresent.

But the financial sector too is facing challenges too. While Hong Kong had a strategic first-mover advantage in the financing sector of the region, other global cities are waking up. And there are important challenges on the expenditure side too. To maintain its competitive edge, the law requires Hong Kong to keep public spending below 20% (with a three-year window to smoothen out cyclical effects). So while the income side is fixed, Hong Kong’s rapidly ageing population, growing income inequalities and other social factors are putting immense pressure on the expenditure side. The government is acutely aware of these challenges and trade-offs, not least, as Cindy Kwan from the Central Policy Unit explained, through their weekly survey of opinions and attitudes among Hong Kong’s population. Like most other countries, however, it is struggling with finding convincing answers to these challenges and, like other democracies too, it needs to weight the long-term interests of the territory against the short-term demands from its citizens.

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Video Series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education 
OECD Department for Education
Photo credit: School warning sign /Shutterstock

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