Home > UGC Publications > Speeches and Articles > 2010 > SG's speech on 3+3+4 symposium Language Issues for University Graduates

SG's speech on 3+3+4 symposium Language Issues for University Graduates

"3+3+4" Symposium on "Language Issues for University Graduates"
23 January 2010 (Saturday)

Speech by Mr Michael V Stone, Secretary General
of the University Grants Committee

Secretary SUEN, Professor (CF) NG, Professor (Chi-hou) CHAN, distinguished speakers and guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. I am very pleased to speak at this Symposium co-hosted by the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) and City University of Hong Kong (CityU), and sponsored by the University Grants Committee (UGC). In the past one year or so, seven symposia - including this one - in relation to the preparation of the new "3+3+4" curriculum have been held. We are very happy to see the enthusiasm colleagues attach to "3+3+4" related issues - including language issues - as demonstrated by the large turnout today.

2. While English is the lingua franca, some say that Putonghua is becoming the other. Given Hong Kong's colonial English speaking background and our unique ties to the Mainland, our students should have every reason to excel in mastering both. But do they? It is very common to hear complaints about the language skills of all sectors in Hong Kong: from the sales person to the cabbie and from the fresh graduate to the language teacher in school. Are these complaints justified?

3. It is a wonderful and terrible thing that everyone is an expert in education and has strong views on the matter. I am no exception! So let me say my tuppence worth.

4. It is important to keep a balanced perspective of what we can hope the general population may be able to achieve in languages and what we should expect from what is still a relatively small - or elite - cohort of university level graduates. I have no doubt that our general population speaks a second language - English - far better than an average American or Brit. But for native English speakers, that is the curse of having the lingua franca as ones' first language. In many continental Europe countries, the position is different. Even the general public can normally speak OK in a second - and in some countries even a third - language. This is probably because many continental languages are spoken by only a small % of other nations - hence the need to be competent in another language is much stronger.

5. But surely the need in Hong Kong is equally strong. No body outside Hong Kong and Guangdong speaks Cantonese. Looking at the clamor to change to English stream schooling - by both parents and schools - it seems everyone wants to be good in English. But it just does not seem to happen. Why? Experts must have pored over this question but it seems to me that it must be a cultural and motivational matter, combined with the fact that many parents are still basically monoglots - and I say that meaning no disrespect. The education system must also bear its share of the problem.

6. But I am treading in dangerous territory - way outside my area - and with Secretary Suen shortly to speak, I better get onto safer ground.

7. For a start, the medium of instruction in almost all institutions is English. The UGC has been allocating Language Enhancement Grants (LEGs) to support institutions' provision of language enhancement initiatives ever since 1991. In 2009/10, some $110 million will be allocated to institutions as LEGs. We know these grants play an important element in institutions' endeavors. We have also implemented a Common English Proficiency Assessment Scheme (CEPAS) to encourage final year undergraduate students to undertake English proficiency tests, which is at the moment the English Language Testing System (IELTS), by reimbursing test fees. The latest test results showed that the vast majority (87%) of our graduates who took the English test under CEPAS were "competent" or "good" users of English.

8. I have personal experience of assessing these "competent or good" users. I have chaired the Administrative Officer recruitment board and marked papers for the Government's Joint Recruitment Examination. I can tell you the experiences were not very encouraging. Some 10,000 people sit the Joint Examination each year. Even allowing for mature and repeat candidates, that means a large % of fresh graduates sit it every year. The general standard of written English is depressingly weak. And my colleagues tell me the written Chinese is likewise - written rather like Cantonese is spoken. And for the AO Board, while there are clearly candidates with both excellent English and Chinese, the number is not that large.

9. I shall be very interested to hear from Mr. (William) LEUNG and Mr. TSIM (Tak Lung) who will share with us their views on the employers' and the industry's expectation. Their views will no doubt shed light on institutions' strategies in making use of the additional undergraduate year under 334, and the LEGs, to improve students' language proficiency.

10. It is probably too late to make an enormous difference, when students reach university age. But we can certainly try hard to do so. In Hong Kong, a common mindset among students and even their parents is to "graduate early and recoup the investment as soon as possible". There is little scope for or interest in allowing more flexibility to study, work and/or travel overseas while at university. The move to 4 years of Ug study should help to improve the scope. And we see great merit in bringing a mindset change among students through promoting internationalization, which will broaden local students' horizons and promote cultural exchange. Such also gives the opportunity for students to brush up their English and Putonghua, as well as other foreign languages, through real life interactions. Exchange activity is thus another powerful tool for improving students' language and communication skills, and the UGC encourages institutions to provide more exchange opportunities, regardless of nature and duration.

11. The UGC is glad that the Government is also firmly on side, as demonstrated by the policy initiative to develop education services through, among other means, internationalization. We will continue to work closely with the Government and institutions to make the institutions more attractive to quality non-local student, and to deepen internationalization.

12. Having non-local and local students on campus does not, however, necessarily lead to better English or Putonghua if the two groups never really interact. There must be opportunities - and a willingness - for real interaction. Institutions have an important task of promoting interaction between the local and non-local students to help local students to reap the benefit offered by a more internationalized campus.

13. Ladies and gentlemen, I think the language learning environment in Hong Kong and in our institutions is not wanting. Opportunities to interact and the necessary supporting facilities exist practically everywhere - only awaiting students to seize and utilize. At the end of the day, students have to paddle their own canoes.

14. I look forward to today's presentations and discussions, which I am sure will inspire us on how the UGC and institutions can give students' canoes a push. Thank you.