Equal Opportunities Commission



192nd Congregation and Certificate and Prize Presentation Ceremony (Afternoon Session) Faculty of Education
Organised by The University of Hong Kong

Speech by Dr York Y.N. CHOW, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


President Mathieson;

Dean Andrews;

Members of the Education Faculty; 

Honoured guests;

Graduates and friends,

Good afternoon.

First, many congratulations to the new graduates. You have worked very hard towards this day, and I am very glad to be here to celebrate your achievements. Thank you for inviting me to share this happy occasion with you. I hope you would permit me to share with you a few thoughts, which might come in handy as you embark on this next chapter of your life.

Some of my former teachers may find it quite amusing that I am here today – to offer advice about the future to bright, young minds of the education sector. After all, as a young boy, I was certainly not considered a good student, and I was punished frequently for my lack of attention. In fact, I was quite often seated with my female peers, as the teachers hoped that their good behaviour would rub off on me. I enjoyed arts and crafts, sports and music, but those subjects were not counted in examination assessment in those days! It was not until secondary school that I began to take my education more seriously, and started to focus on academic achievements as well. 

Yet even as I was considered a “poor student” in the classroom, I always prided myself in being a good friend who is ready with a helping hand, outside of the classroom. Indeed, as a youngster, I had many friends from different backgrounds, including those from ethnic minority groups. My very good friends were from India and Pakistan, and I had classmates from Malaysia, Thailand, Portugal, and other countries. I also had friends who had disabilities and learning difficulties. We learned together, and we learned from each other. I have always been grateful for such a positive learning environment. Up to now, I still treasure continuous learning, through reading, active participation, and listening to other people with different experiences.

Growing up in such a multicultural environment gave me a great deal of early insights, I think, about the purpose of education. Without a doubt, the education sector holds unparalleled importance in society, because of your role in shaping tomorrow’s citizens to be competitive in the contemporary world. To achieve this, our young people must develop care and concern for others around them, and understand the pitfalls of stereotyping. 

More than ever, we live in a closely-connected world with rapid information exchange, and this has a massive social impact. Each and every day, people are communicating across borders, languages, and cultural traditions. In this new globalised world, cross-cultural competence – the ability to forge trustful relationships across different backgrounds – will help to differentiate our next generation from the crowd and position them competitively. This is what will enable them to succeed in the 21st century society.

I personally gained from adopting this mindset and principles, such as when I had to represent my medical and orthopaedic profession in international organisations; when I was one of the Paralympic leaders fighting for equality for people with disabilities worldwide; and when I was representing Hong Kong in the international arena during health and food safety crises. By having genuine compassion, empathy, respect, and acceptance of people from different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs, trust can be built and problems can be solved, often a step at a time, to reach the ultimate goal.

In other words, in my view, education is more than passing on knowledge. It is also about passing on and fostering positive and inclusive values, which are not only beneficial for collective good, but would also help individuals to thrive in our ever-changing world. 

I follow this in my own life. As parents of two daughters, my wife and I placed the utmost importance on the learning environment when it came to choosing their school. We wanted them to enjoy a diverse school atmosphere, in part because we believe that only in such an atmosphere can they nurture their cross-cultural competence and skills. 

Such skills are only possible if we value diversity and see people as individuals, and not make assumptions about them. If teachers can proactively instill such values in their students now, it will go a long way towards facilitating equal chances for all, both in the present and in the future. 

Indeed, there remains much inequality still in the educational field. Hong Kong was recently named the best city in Asia for international students. Yet, many of our home-grown students still struggle for equal opportunities in education because of characteristics such as their race, disability, or sexual orientation. This is why we have named this issue a priority area of concern for us at the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC).

For instance, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education, one in five Nepali youths aged 13 to 19 drop out before Form 5, compared to 6% of their Chinese peers. A major systemic barrier ethnic minorities face is the lack of support for them to integrate into schools and, specifically, to learn Chinese. This impacts their ability to access university education and, later, their future prospects. This leaves them with limited social mobility, and perpetuates intergenerational poverty. We have heard from both students and parents that many ethnic minority children who attend mainstream, Chinese-medium schools also face bullying and indifference due to cultural and language barriers. It is common for them to be stereotyped as “naughty”. It is not surprising that, given this, many students of ethnic minority backgrounds feel disheartened about their future.

As future educators, you can make a difference by giving all students equal chance and taking the time to motivate and inspire them to overcome the challenges they face in their own education. I mentioned before that I did not take my own education seriously until secondary school. The reason for this change was due to one teacher who encouraged me to believe that I could achieve far more than what I was doing, with some effort and self-discipline. Because of his encouragement, which came when other teachers may not have made the effort, I began to apply myself to my studies. Eventually, I was ranked at the top of my class – which led me to medical school at this university, and to my life today. So I hope you would not doubt the power of one teacher to change a life. 

You can also play a key role to engage ethnic minority parents. Many of them feel deeply discouraged as they watch their children struggle, while they face obstacles in communicating with the teachers and asking them for help. 

Other than ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, including special learning needs, also currently face massive hurdles in schools. In 2012, the EOC conducted a study which revealed that only about half of teachers had attended any special education training courses or training in inclusive education. Consequently, many teachers may not feel equipped to assist students with special needs and do not feel sufficiently supported with necessary resources. The students with special needs are also at higher risk of harassment in school - Around one-quarter of the respondents with special needs indicated that they had been bullied by their classmates.

As educators, you can make a real impact by being a role model to embody the values of equal opportunities. As a student, for instance, I made it a point to always stand up against bullies – and I found that doing so left an inadvertent but positive influence on my friends to do the same when faced with their own situations of injustice. As teachers, you would not only be helping someone in need, but you would also set a strong example to your students about the importance of standing up for justice and of not tolerating discrimination. This can create a ripple effect towards fostering a caring society. 

The potential impact of your individual actions as educators should not be under-estimated. For instance, some of you may become teachers and school administrators. You can integrate inclusive concepts into your curriculum and school core values, and ensure that the campus is a safe and nurturing environment for all to learn, without harassment or bullying of any kind. You can teach your students to respect and value each other’s differences, both inside and outside of the classrooms, and enable friendships to flourish across different backgrounds. And I hope you will take the time to engage and involve parents, who all care deeply about their children’s success and may be struggling towards this end. 

Others of you may go on to develop educational policies and curriculum. I hope you would bear in mind the importance of cross-cultural knowledge, including eliminating stereotypes. I hope you would make sure that values such as empathy and social justice can form the foundation of our children’s education. 

And for those of you who may be involved in educational assessment and evaluation, I hope you will keep an eye out for those among us who are marginalised, and ensure that they can have equal access to all aspects of the educational process – from support measures to examinations – the results of which would have a strong bearing on their future.

Indeed, ensuring equality, particularly to those who are most vulnerable, is often used as a measure of a civilised society. In my views, the ability to accumulate a large reserve of wealth or pioneer knowledge is meaningless if we cannot take care of the disadvantaged and ensure that everyone can enjoy the opportunities that the society has to offer. 

Many youngsters today may find themselves deeply concerned about the future. Perhaps they feel a certain hopelessness. After all, given the fact that knowledge is readily available via the internet, it is easy for the younger generation to envision what they think is “the ideal” future. But that does not necessarily mean they have a deep understanding of how to go about achieving it. This may leave them feeling resentful and disillusioned. 

As educators, you are in a unique position to address this situation. So as you move on to the next chapter, I would like to issue a challenge to you: Equip your students to compete fairly and successfully in the 21st century diverse society, and inspire them towards greater heights with compassion and respect for others around them. I am certain that this is a challenge you will embrace with care as you go forth and shape the future of our education sector, given all that you have learned here from this very fine institution. 

Finally, I hope you will recall that, as the next movers and shakers in the education field, you have a very real influence, and responsibility, to make a real difference.

Again, I wish to thank you for inviting me today to share this extraordinary moment with you. I wish all of you every success in your future. Congratulations, and best of luck.