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Dean's Speech: Diocesan Girls’ School Speech Day 2016 - The importance of being earnestly equal while excellent

26 November 2016

Bishop Chan, Supervisor Mrs Ho, Headmistress Mrs Lau, teachers and staff, parents, distinguished guests, and most importantly graduands, ladies and gentlemen,

First, to the graduands: we are celebrating your achievements accrued over the previous many years at this superb institution, which has long been rightfully regarded as one of the best in Hong Kong and indeed the region. The superb education that you have received will open many doors for your future, and the quality will be such that you will be spoiled for choice over which one to enter.

Let us now try a thought experiment. Consider a very different kind of future. What if you had attended a Band 3 school? Or a school that offered a less excellent education? What kind of future would you be looking at then?

Education, as has been widely shown and acknowledged, is opportunity. Amartya Sen, the Indian-born British economist who received an economics Nobel for his work on social choices, welfare, distribution and poverty, once emphatically asserted the importance of a good education:

“…we must go on fighting for basic education for all, but also emphasise the importance of the content of education…

Especially if you go on to university, you will be much more likely to fulfil your potential; and if you come from a less privileged background, to cast off the lottery of birth and improve your living circumstances. My colleague at the University, also a DGS parent, economics professor Richard Wong Yue-chim, has shown that in 2011 university graduates had a 23 per cent rate of return on their education, compared to 16 per cent for those with only secondary school education. The latter statistic has hardly changed over the past 40 years, but that for university education has become progressively higher. It was only 17 per cent in 1976.

What does this tell us? The returns on a university education are getting larger in Hong Kong. Professor Wong attributes this in large part to the fact that the number of university places at government-funded universities has not really grown since 1994, despite growing demand for more baccalaureate-prepared professionals.

Thoughtful and concerned citizens of the world,

You can see where this is heading. With one of the highest Gini coefficients amongst developed economies, inequality is already a major worry in Hong Kong and the disparities of education only aggravate the problem. Education, in this situation, becomes not the great leveller but the great divider. When you add in between-school banding, within-school streaming and the like, which are aimed at promoting greater excellence, but only amongst the already elite thus further restricting opportunities available to a smaller and more select few, even more young people will lose out. This is the self-fulfilling entrenchment of privilege of the middle and upper-middle classes across generations, and it is not only unjust but dangerous.

It is dangerous because we have been witnessing the rise of many disenchanted peoples. Across the world, extremist politicians are giving voice to those left behind by globalisation, which tend to disproportionately reward the educated elite, that is you and me. The American people’s deep seated anger delivered Donald Trump the presidency, although Austrian Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer suffered a narrow but now annulled defeat. The farcical and disingenuous behaviour of the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage was shameful, yet Brexit prevailed. Russian and Turkish nationalism under popular strongmen Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan are destabilising Europe and beyond. Need I remind us of the so-called “localist movement” and the New Year’s day Mongkok riot we have so painfully experienced in our own backyard?

Rather than denigrating the have-nots as “the deplorables” as Hillary Clinton let slip during her campaign, we must make it work for the other half of the population who are below the median, in terms of income, wealth but above all opportunity.

Young leaders of tomorrow,

There are many ways to redress the inequality of opportunity, but no better route than through education, as Amartya Sen reminds us. However, I have been dismayed by either inaction, because of ignorance or blind adherence to laissez faire like in Hong Kong, or abreaction like the case of re-expanding the grammar school system in the UK.

British prime minister Theresa May, herself a product of an excellent state grammar education, has proposed to remove the cap placed on the number of grammar schools in the UK. Middle class parents who would have considered sending their children to independent schools charging private fees are overjoyed of course. However, such streaming uses public money but it benefits disproportionately the professional and managerial classes who find they can have good schools at the state’s expense. It is a zero sum game because it means the less privileged will have fewer resources thus opportunities. Nor is it likely to add value to higher achievers. The non-profit Education Policy Institute in the UK compared students in comprehensive schools and selective state grammar schools, and found the top students performed equally well in both systems. New grammar schools will likely cream off top performers from comprehensives, leaving the latter schools even less desirable for those left behind.

Inherently a system that streams by ability neglects the fact that ability can often be affected by living circumstances – the education attainment of your parents, what jobs they hold, where you were born and where you now live. There is nothing quite so toxic as the toxicity of poverty. Ability at entry, whilst usually predictive of future success, does not equate capability. Surely the value added of a school is precisely a measure of whether and by how much it can realise the full capability of a student, regardless of demonstrated ability at entry. A school would be of little use if it functions as a mere triage agent that creams off high achievers on entry then claim their subsequent success as the school’s own through reflected glory.

Wistful and wishful graduands,

I am no John Lennon. I am not a dreamer. But like Martin Luther King, I do have a dream. I dream of living in a less unequal society, even when we stand to lose personally as current beneficiaries of inequality. I recognise that I may well be dismissed as a bleeding heart liberal who is comfortably ensconced in my world of privilege and can therefore afford such a dream. But even based on amoral, consequentialist calculus, there is every selfish reason for all of us to share in my dream of a more just and equal world. The anger, unrest and polarisation of societies the world over will not end with the 2016 US election season. Marie Le Pen has been itching for next year’s French presidential contest. There are plenty more politicians lining up to capture and exploit the unhappy lot who are justifiably indignant because we, those with opportunities abound, have failed them. We need more young people to benefit from learning, and through being given greater opportunity to succeed, close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The challenge in a world of finite resources is how to provide high-quality education to a broad and diverse group of students. On the surface, streaming can seem the most efficient way of doing that. Place all those of similar abilities in the same classes so the lessons can be pitched at their level, with the expectation that everybody will learn to their individual capabilities. Unfortunately, this does not provide society with the greatest good as I have argued. There are other ways to lift students towards excellence, without sacrificing quality or social aims, through technology and more creative approaches.

Fellow techno junkies,

My own field of public health offers a good example. We try to improve the health of whole communities or populations and new technology has greatly enhanced our ability to do this. Big data analytics enable us to access and assess huge amounts of information to quickly detect signals and patterns that otherwise might not ever have become apparent or at least would have taken years to discern. And by the bedside, with genomic and other -omic technologies, we are now beginning to realise the potential of precision medicine and targeted therapies. Technology has enabled us to have the best of both worlds – of equity and efficiency, of looking after the individual as well as the whole community. The old luddite-like public health model no longer needs apply.

Technology is also starting to make a difference in teaching and learning. I pioneered HKU’s first foray into MOOCs three years ago. MOOC stands for massive open online courses, which use video and other technologies to present short lectures and materials; they are offered freely over the internet. Leading universities around the world are producing MOOCs with the ultimate aim of bringing knowledge and knowhow previously locked in the cloisters of ivory towers to as wide a community as possible. MOOCs are still in an experimental phase. However, at HKU we have started to draw on the same technology to enhance learning in our brick-and-mortar environment and develop the potential to provide tailored learning. An example of this is the so-called flipped classroom, where students watch videos and do readings before class, then come to class to apply their learning. Teachers can use data analytics to see how students watch the videos – where they repeat or pause or abandon what they are watching – so they can see what issues need further elaboration. Quick quizzes online, taken in class or at home, also provide a snapshot of who is and is not grasping the material – well before anyone has to sit down for an exam. The “gamefication” of learning is also being looked at, to see how games can be developed for classroom sessions to consolidate, apply and enrich learning. All of this makes it possible to cater for a fairly wide range of abilities within the same classroom without sacrificing quality. It also makes it more enjoyable to learn.

Young scholars and teachers,

Of course technology alone cannot be the panacæa towards becoming both equal and excellent. There also needs to be good policies and programmes. In my own Faculty of Medicine, we believe that everyone who enters should be offered the same opportunities and not be divided into yet more streams. Recently we revised the MBBS curriculum so that all third-year medical students have a flexible “enrichment year” before they begin clinical training. They can decide how to spend that year. It may be on exchange for experiential learning; it may be pursuing an intercalated master’s or even doctoral degree for the scholarly minded. Students may want to undertake research, either at HKU or abroad, or take courses that explore broader interests outside of medicine. The important thing is that every student will be offered these same opportunities, regardless of their background or achievements at entry, because we believe that such enrichment is essential for every one’s personal and professional development. The Faculty also offers generous Springboard Scholarships for students who have managed to excel despite an adverse environment while growing up, or a Second Chance admission route for those who began their higher learning or even work journey in an entirely different field but now wishes to dedicate their careers to looking after patients. We wish to signal that we value any capable student regardless of where they come from; and we undertake to help every one realise their full set of capabilities.

A sound education is one of the greatest lasting assets that anyone can have because it offers lifelong advantages that are far more profitable than tangible wealth like money, stocks or property. While riches can disappear quickly by force of circumstance, as most Hong Kong families had learned bitterly as political and economic migrants during the past half century, knowledge and best of all wisdom cannot be taken away no matter the outward environment in which we find ourselves.

An education system that offers equal opportunities to all should be the cornerstone goal of any civilised society, and it does not have to happen at the expense of quality. Modern pædagogical methods, enabled by technology, can provide a superlative platform for people to make the most of their capability and hard work while addressing concerns of justice.

This goal cannot be achieved simply by having a dream. It requires deliberate and persistent effort by dedicated people to bring it about. As privileged graduates of this excellent institution, I will leave you with the following questions: what are your responsibilities to this goal? What can and should you be doing with your privilege to make society a better place? Whether it is in medicine or education or some other field, I hope you will see that there is the means in the world today to become earnestly equal while excellent.

Ladies of the future, I commend you for your achievements and command you to bring about our common dream.

Good luck and God bless!