Thursday, 3 April 2008

Should education be a privilege or a right?

This is another question that has continually reverberated in my head.

This is a very difficult question because education itself has varied meanings - for different ages, of different quality, and the provision of education requires a 'positive' act on the part of the State, meaning the State has to provide something and take action to secure this facility. And this in general involves a question of distribution of resources.

(positive obligations are contrasted with negative obligations, which merely require the State not to infringe rights, eg right to life would require the State not to impose a penalty that kills. It is generally easier to find negative obligations than positive obligations.)

I'd like to discuss this question in the context of special education and associate degrees in Hong Kong.

I read in the news that the provision of special education in English in Hong Kong is very limited, and a lot of expat families with children who have special educational needs have had to wait for at least one or two years to get a place, and many have chosen to leave Hong Kong.

We've also seen a proliferation of associate degrees in Hong Kong. And now many of them are complaining about the lack of jobs for them, and lack of recognition.

These two issues boil down to our answer to this question: are these aspects of education a matter of privilege or right? The problems have arisen primarily because there's been some confusion over this issue.

Should all children with special educational needs get special education which meets their (language) needs? Should all students who don't get admitted to university get some other form of education and qualification ie associate degrees?

My argument is that only basic education up to age 15 should be a right. Beyond that, it should be a privilege.

Firstly on the problem of associate degrees, I think the root of the problem is the lack of diversity in society. When we have a massive number of students who don't make the grades to universities, they are however not quite ready or willing to go to society. That's largely because society hasn't really developed itself to make the most of the labour resources. I believe that every individual has his own strength and weakness, and that includes the academic respect.

The whole idea of selection process for university means that there is a condition that everyone must meet before they can get a chance to go to university, and there are limited places. And I think there should indeed be limited university places, because university is for those who are suitable to receive that kind of training. What I'm saying is no more than 'some people are better at studying, some aren't as tuned in.' To allow only a small group in university is merely to acknowledge this fact.

The dilemma arises when one considers the value of educational qualifications. In my opinion, the root of the problem is the disproportionate over-valuation of educational qualifications, which arises from a distorted social structure in favour of university graduates (eg emphasis on professional qualifications). Society values university graduates more--and so much more that non-university graduates become at such a massive disadvantage that they don't get a fair go in the real world.

I'm not saying who deserves more resources in society, but I'm just pointing out the fact that it is not the idea of selection on the basis of academic merit itself that gives rise to the problem. The problem lies in the additional background fact that non-university graduates are put at a real disadvantage/have no other option.

What went wrong with the policy on associate degrees is that this merely exacerbates the problem because this drives more people in the wrong direction - a place which is simply not for them. It is very easy for the propaganda to argue by virtue of 'right to education' that there should be 'associate degrees' to cater for more people... With due respect, the right solution in my view is to develop more industries and (non-academic) options in society AND to give them the same degree of recognition as other more qualification-based jobs.

Because this has all been misdirected, we get a problem of inadequate recognition of 'qualifications' - which seem to be a paradox in itself.

As for special education, the case can be dismissed more easily. There is a central resource distribution issue. On the one hand, we can't accommodate anyone whatever their language needs. Say some family who speaks Russian can't expect HK education to provide special service for them. This is what minority groups have to suffer. On the other hand, part of the importance of social welfare is to cater for the needs of the minority, particularly 'substantial' minority groups like English expat families, given HK's colonial history. So in my view, they do have a strong case for arguing for an expansion of special education (and indeed general education) in English for this group of people.

I myself have come across some South Asians in Hong Kong which are quite a substantial minority. They are different from a lot of 'expats' in that they can't really afford the fees of international schools, but they don't speak Chinese. They are forced to go to Chinese schools and inevitably most of them underperform because of language barriers.

Well we can expect them to adapt to the Chinese way - when in Rome do as the Romans do. And indeed, a lot of British born Chinese don't expect to get education in Chinese in Britain. That's fair enough.

But the idea about it being a 'right' connotes a 'free' or relatively low-cost education. If there are not those insanely expensive international schools in HK, I'd be happier with this fact as everyone should come to accept. But when there is indeed recognition of the need for this service for English minorities in Hong Kong, I'm not happy with the fact that it is only available in private education, and if you can't pay for it, you'll have to stick with your bad luck. That's so wrong.


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