Opinion – Titles and Skills

As December approaches, the inevitable assessment of the tenure of the outgoing Chief Executive is on the agenda. His recent intervention on the matter was the starting shot of that process.

Among his successes, Chui Sai On listed the changes in the education landscape, attributed to the priority given by his governments to that sector. In particular, he underlined the extension of access to higher education to all areas of society. That is indeed an achievement, one that he can rightly be proud of and understandably wants to underline.

Interestingly enough, this was one topic that motivated some rare manifestations of disagreement coming from other political or professional sectors. Everybody agrees that this is an essential area for public investment and, as usual, most will recommend increasing the expenditure. Some, however, will question, however faintly, the results achieved, suggesting a mismatch between academic credentials and professional skills. In a way, all may be right, up to a point.

The policy orientation is welcome. It is a feature of modern societies to try to create opportunities for education that transcend the limits that might be imposed by social origin or economic status. The focus on increasing expenditure alone is less so, and not necessarily the best way to achieve that purpose.

In fact, in education, as in all areas of public expenditure, a rigorous assessment of the alternative approaches and an evaluation of their outcomes should always be a standard procedure. A lot of money spent does not mean necessarily that was well spent. A lot of academic titles alone do not signify necessarily professional competence or adequacy to the social and economic conditions of the moment or the future.

Among the more or less implied criticisms heard after the CE speech were references to the weak relation between academic learning and market demands. Or the lack of really competent professionals even in areas where huge investments were carried out. Those issues deserve further scrutiny.

Or we might be falling into what we might describe as the credentialism nightmare. That is, we may have an increasing number of academic diplomas, with the expectations that go with them, matched by a weakened level of competence, with the penalties the market and society at large will impose on that, sooner or later.

Earlier in the casino boom years, many would privately confess their reservations about the training of the local workforce. How much has that changed?