Smooth passage for Lam's $631m education package

Swift consensus shows there is room for unity between HK lawmakers, say experts

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's proposal to spend an extra HK$3.6 billion (S$631 million) per year on education was passed by the city's legislature yesterday, despite being heavily criticised by some opposition lawmakers.

The proposal was passed by 43 to three votes, with six people abstaining, at the end of an eight-hour meeting before the Legislative Council (Legco) started its summer recess. It could be rolled out when school reopens after the summer break in September.

The plan was passed relatively smoothly, unlike many previous proposals that had stalled in the legislature as a result of delaying tactics.

The swift approval of one of Mrs Lam's key election proposals, which had included improving teacher-to-student ratios, showed that there is room for cooperation between lawmakers across the political spectrum, analysts said.

Under the proposal, local students who cannot get a place in the city's eight public universities will receive an annual subsidy of HK$30,000 without means testing to pursue a full-time, locally accredited self-financing undergraduate programme.

Mrs Lam, who took office on July 1, said last week that she expects around 39,000 students to "immediately benefit" from the subsidy.

  • Key features of education package

  • •An annual HK$30,000 (S$5,270) subsidy for local students taking a full-time, self-financing tertiary course. This is will be given out without means testing subject to certain academic requirements.

    •Students taking eligible undergraduate programmes in mainland institutions will receive HK$5,000 annually.

    •Teacher-to-class ratio in public primary and secondary schools to be increased by 0.1, with the addition of 2,350 permanent teachers. A school with 30 classes can hire three more teachers, for instance.

    •Extra staff to meet the needs of students with special needs.

    •Another 1,000 information technology professionals for primary and secondary schools.

    •On the cards is possibly also a standardised salary scale for kindergarten teachers.

The HK$3.6 billion education package is part of the HK$5 billion additional spending for the education sector that Mrs Lam had pledged in her election manifesto unveiled in February.

The package also includes measures such as setting a pay scale for kindergarten teachers and increasing the teacher-to-class ratio by 0.1 for all public primary and secondary schools, meaning there would be 2,350 more permanent teachers.

The proposal was heavily criticised by pan-democratic lawmakers yesterday and the Legco session was suspended at least thrice after lawmakers Eddie Chu, Fernando Cheung, Claudia Mo and Raymond Chan protested.

In a heated debate, pan- democrats argued that the HK$30,000 subsidy should also be given to those enrolled in self-financing programmes at the city's eight publicly funded universities.

Although Education Minister Kevin Yeung would not amend the package yesterday, he promised to consider the suggestion in future.

Analysts said the education proposal won the support of lawmakers across the political spectrum as it is popular with the public.

The proposal was passed amid rising tensions between the government and the opposition pan-democratic camp after the High Court disqualified four lawmakers from the latter camp last Friday, over the validity of their swearing-in oaths.

Earlier this week, a group of pan-democrats threatened to stall the legislature if the government does not take steps to rebuild trust with the opposition.

Analysts said the education proposal won the support of lawmakers across the political spectrum as it is popular with the public. The proposal was passed amid rising tensions between the government and the opposition pan-democratic camp.

Asked on Tuesday how she would deal with the rising tensions with the pan-democratic camp, Mrs Lam had said: "I'm not here as the Chief Executive to just deal with the pan-democratic members. I have 7.3 million people to whom I have to be accountable for my decisions and actions."

She noted that the education package "has the broad consensus and support of all institutions".

"So I just find it not really very reasonable for individual members of the Legco to reverse that common consensus of the institutions."

Professor Lau Siu Kai, vice-chairman of the Beijing-backed Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said pan-democrats would not want to "jeopardise this relationship with Carrie Lam".

He said given that the central government wants to improve its relationship with the opposition camp, the pan-democrats also want to "reciprocate" by not voting against the popular education package.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'Smooth passage for Lam's $631m education package'. Print Edition | Subscribe