Inauguration Ceremony of Morningside College, November 11 2011

Meritocracy, Access and Social Mobility

By Gerald Chan

The journey towards this day of inaugurating the Morningside College had its beginning in the home in which my brother Ronnie and I grew up. Throughout our childhood, I saw many people coming to our father, seeking financial assistance for the furtherance of their education. I know of no case where the request of the supplicant was denied. Our late father was an unwavering believer in the value of education, and he set a powerful example of enabling others to be educated.

Today, Ronnie and I are following in the footsteps of our late father, to be an enabler of education. I am indebted to many people who have helped in making Morningside College possible. First I’d like to thank Professor Larry Lau – it was he who first suggested to me to consider endowing a college in CUHK. I’m grateful to my Uncle Thomas, and to my many friends, good friends, who have given so generously to this college. A healthy society must have diversity in its educational offerings, to the extent that resources are needed for certain educational missions beyond what can be provided for by the public sector. We in Hong Kong do have a long tradition of the private or the philanthropic sector, acting in partnership with the public sector, in meeting society’s needs.

The founding of the Morningside College is a continuation of this noble tradition. Even though the Morningside College has had only two intakes of students, it has already become a sought-after college. When demand exceeds the capacity of any educational institution, there is the tendency for the institution to become elitist and exclusive. Conventional wisdom is to ration that limited capacity by the practice of meritocracy. I should like to remind us all today, that the term “meritocracy”, coined in 1958 by the Labour MP Michael Young, was meant by him to be a pejorative term. In the words of Professor Stille, and I quote: “He warned against the creation of a new technocratic elite, in which the selection of the few would lead to the abandonment of the many. A new elite, whose privileges were even more crushing and fiercely defended, because they appear to be entirely merited”. I dredged up Michael Young today, because a rather disturbing phenomenon has emerged in recent years. Academic performance has become highly correlated with the socio-economic background of a child – not least because of the educational resources available to the child, by virtue of education itself, having been marketised. An inevitable consequence of this phenomenon is an erosion of social mobility. This cannot be good for society: it will hold back progress and development on many fronts, and ultimately threaten social insta…. er, threaten social stability.

The recent demonstrations around the world, fashioned after the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration, are reminders to us that an ever-greater concentration of resources in the hands of an ever-smaller number of people, is socially untenable. Therefore I wish not that the Morningside College would become a forbidding enclave of the privileged. This college should be an example of access to opportunities. I encourage those who exercise discretion in selecting students to be admitted to this college to see the potential of the applicants who, for reasons of being underprivileged in their upbringing, appear at the moment to be less impressive than the well-born, the well-bred and the well-groomed. We should reach out to the underprivileged even if that is considered risky. The work of this college will be judged not only in absolute terms by the performance of its graduates, but also in relative terms by the changes that the college is able to effect in the lives of its students in the course of the four years they spend here.

I’m joined today by a number of my former classmates from St. Paul’s Co-Educational College – they’re there. We grew up together, from primary school to secondary school. I do not think they would mind my saying this: the parents of two of my classmates were janitors in the school. I feel fortunate to have attended a school which was so inclusive. By example, our headmistress taught us the importance of social responsibility, and our lives were richer for it. I wish that the Morningside College would not be a faceless institution, rather that it would be an institution emblematic of a set of ideals, iconic of certain values, and a force for the good of society. As I hear reports about our students and I see the bright faces, I know we have much to look forward to. Under the guidance of the Master, and the Fellows of the college, we can look forward to graduates of this college, who by virtue of their scholarship, their virtue, and their service, will make positive contributions to society. It is to this larger good that we dedicate the Morningside College. Thank you.

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