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English or languish
Probing the ramifications of Hong Kong's language policy

Quality Assessment
Section Six
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Hong Kong's Bottom Line
The Opportunity Cost of English Language Study in Hong Kong
Where dreams, self-interest, and the state become tangled.


The dream of a world language has been with us for many centuries; the reality of the human condition has been with us much longer. East Asia is still riding the wave of late 19th and early 20th century industrialization and Japanese imperial, educational wisdom. Is it not time to pause for reassessment?

In this section EARTH examines, with the aid of one new graph, fourteen new tables, a factual cartoon cum graph, several additional links, and a wealth of new information, what is probably its most quantitative report of Hong Kong's language educational wasteland to date. This section's lesson is in the numbers, so prepare to tally along. In another sense it is EARTH's preemption of what in the end only empirical research can finally bring to bear. Alas! Someone must set the ball in motion.

Discussion and Explanation

Budgetary Overview
More false images

A brief comparative overview of Hong Kong's principal trade partners and Singapore (graph 17 - new window) suggests that Hong Kongers place an important priority on education. In 2002 only the Singaporean and South Korean governments spent more on education as a proportion of their respective total budgets than did Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong outperformed the United States, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. This same notion is further emphasized when one compares the salaries, received by Hong Kong primary and secondary teachers after 15 years of service, with those of the primary and secondary school teachers of Hong Kong's principal trading partners (graph 79 - new window). Hong Kong teachers are the best paid of the bunch.

Upon closer examination, however, the money spent on each Hong Kong child as a proportion of gross national product paints a very different picture (graph 18 - new window). In fact, comparing performance across these same societies we find Hong Kong at the bottom of the pact just above the Chinese mainland.1 When one considers that Hong Kong ranks number three among these same countries in terms of GDP per capita (graph 34 - new window), there is reason for concern.2 Indeed, as a non-sovereign economy, Hong Kong has never been required to maintain a standing army, navy, and air force. Before 1997 this was the responsibility of the British government; since the reversion in 1997 it has become the responsibility of the Chinese government. On the other hand, national defense spending consumes a very large portion of the United States governmental budget and represents a sizeable proportion of the governmental budgets of Hong Kong's other principal trade partners, as well.

Thus, simply comparing what portion of a government's budget is spent on education across societies tells us little about how much money a society invests in the education of its children relative to other societies. Certainly the Hong Kong government pays its teachers well. This might help to explain the generally shabby-looking appearance of many Hong Kong schools. Should this surprise one, though? Shabby-looking buildings give Hong Kong citizens the impression that their government is even poorer than it truly is, thus making it easier for Hong Kong teachers to spend their extraordinarily high personal incomes relatively free of complaint from unknowing parents and taxpayers. Certainly the appearance of most Hong Kong schools is a far cry from the glittering private-sector skyline and waterfront of Hong Kong Island as seen from Kowloon.

Of course, government administrators, teachers and Hong Kong tax payers are only half of the problem. What about the children who are served by these false images? What about the opportunity cost of learning a language that one is likely never to use, or whose highest return is a false sense of pride about what one has truly acquired?

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If only there were a market
What a child's English language education might bring to

the Child

Among the industrially advanced countries of the world, and even among many that are not so advanced, there are probably few, if any, that do not forbid child labor. More importantly, the laws that prohibit this labor are easy to enforce, because the employment of children is difficult to hide and most parents prefer that children go to school. That governments have found it necessary to enact such laws, however, suggests that many employers would hire children, if the laws were eliminated. Many probably employ them anyway and incur the risk of punishment. In effect, there remains a latent market for child labor with hidden prices that EARTH has sought to estimate. For it is with these that one can measure the opportunity cost (new window) to children, who study English with little or no reward -- likely the majority.

In April 2004 the average entry-level wage offered to secondary form V graduates was HK$29.6 per hour (see note 6 beneath table 44). Under the assumption that a child's market worth grows at about the same rate as the expected long term value of the economy in which he grows up, the hourly wage appropriate for a 1993 Hong Kong preschooler with three years of kindergarten education would have been slightly over HK$15 per hour -- the value of about three cans of soda pop purchased from an inexpensive Hong Kong vending machine in 2004 (see note 3 and column 2 of table 45). By comparison the value of a child's labor having just completed his basic education in 2002 would have been somewhat over H$26 per hour -- the value of a low-end, full meal at Maxim's, a popular Hong Kong self-service cafeteria.3

Insofar as Hong Kong's Education and Manpower Bureau recommends that each school devote between 17 to 21 percent of its classroom training to the study of English, the average Hong Kong student spends between 140 to 190 hours per year (see table 47c) in pursuit of the English language. In child wages this represents an annual sacrifice of between HK$2,200 and HK$3,200 for primary students and between HK$3,300 and HK$6,400 for secondary students (see column 5 table 45).

Of course, there is more to education than simply the opportunity cost of the moment. As the acquisition of knowledge is a cumulative process, it is best to view it, as part of a long term investment that draws interest over time. This is to say, its true value is not simply the sum of the moments, but the sum of the moments held over one's entire educational career. By way of example, the value of a moment spent as a preschooler is worth more in retrospect to a secondary student than it is to a primary student, because the secondary student has had longer to build on the same preschool knowledge that both have acquired.

Now, let's makes sense of this in terms of money value. Assuming that a child attends kindergarten for three years before entering into primary school, at 2004 entry-level market rates the money value of a secondary form V school leaver's English language education comes to nearly HK$57,000 (see column 5 table 46). For a secondary form VII student who expects to graduate in 2006 the amount sacrificed in acquisition of the language comes to just over HK$76,000 (see column 3 table 46). Insofar as average form V and VII school leavers only earn between HK$6,635 and HK$7,462 per month (see column 3 table 45) during their first year of employment, the total sacrifice in classroom English language training is between 70% and 85% of their taxable annual income.4 Insofar as form V and form VII school leavers are not recompensed for their language proficiency during their first year of employment, the loss in time and energy for many is substantial (see note 4 table 44).

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If only there were a market
What a child's English language education might bring to

the Economy

In 2001 the approximate number of classroom hours spent among Hong Kong children in pursuit of the English language came to just under one half billion hours (see row 5 table 47c). The value of that time measured in 2004 secondary form V entry-level wage rates comes to about HK$3.7 billion (just over US$470 million).5 Neither the time nor the value of that time spent outside of the classroom performing homework is included in either of these two figures! By way of comparison, as a fraction of the Hong Kong government's total recurrent expenditure on education in 2001-2002 this value, excluding the value of homework time, comes to just shy of 8%.6 This is obviously nontrivial investment. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau appears to think otherwise.

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Hong Kong's English language
distillation and certified waste disposal plant.

Plant Introduction

Passing in review

Learning as an activity can only be enjoyable when we enjoy what we are learning, or we can anticipate some reward for having learned. In the first instance we take pleasure in the subject matter of our study, and in the second we relish the thought of the reward, while we are studying. Of course, if the reward is simply the avoidance of a penalty, and we take little pleasure in the subject matter, the joy of learning quickly dissipates. As a result we learn only what we need in order to avoid the expected penalty for having not learned, and wish we were learning something else, or nothing at all. As the motivation for learning English and language in general is quite low among Hong Kong children, learning English for most can be little more than an activity to avoid parental disappointment, teacher dissatisfaction, and peer humiliation.7

After all, it is difficult for children and teens to imagine the dire consequences they will face for having one day failed to pass the HKCEE. Trying to imagine the eventual rewards for having passed cannot be all that easier either. Thus, it is incumbent on parents and educators to take responsibility for these acts of faith, on behalf of all Hong Kong children, and provide them with proper, more immediate incentives to acquire that which will one day permit them to pass their examinations. Of course, the incentives that are provided must be realistic and in tune with the rewards that society can reasonably provide. Unfortunately, everything we have examined until now strongly suggests that neither Hong Kong's educational system nor Hong Kong society in general can provide even the majority of Hong Kong children with an eventual rate of return worthy of their investment in the English language. As a result any immediate incentive must either fall short of what students truly need, or be completely contrived!

Before seeking to estimate the true cost of this seemingly collosal failure in mismatched investment and opportunity it may be useful to review a few important facts. In 2001 Hong Kong's export-related gross domestic product amounted to only 38% of the total economy (graph 57 - new window). As a very large proportion of Hong Kong's external trade takes place between Chinese, the English language is simply not needed in about half of all transactions (graph 58 - new window).8 Moreover, Hong Kong is not a particularly diverse society; nearly 95% of its entire population claimed Chinese ethnicity in 2001. Although there was a sudden surge in the need for the English language between 1991 and 1996, after the reversion this sudden increase quickly dissipated (graph 54 - new window).9 Furthermore, those Hong Kongers that are able to make good use of the English language in the pursuit of overseas pleasure represent only a minority of the entire population (graph 35a - new window).10 Finally, it is important to keep in mind that Hong Kong's leadership clearly reflects that of a former British colony that discovered world prominence in the shadows of the Korean War and is now subject to the political dictates of Beijing's one-party rule.11

We are now ready to examine Hong Kong's English language distillation and certified waste disposal plant in detail. Please open to graph 78 (new window), if you have not already done so.

This illustration is part cartoon, but mostly illustrated fact. So, you are invited to laugh at, but not gloss over its contents, for it is a generally accurate representation of the way in which Hong Kong academia is structured. It also contains a healthy dose of factually based conjecture, that is derived directly from the results just outlined above. Let us examine the illustration's factual basis first.

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Plant distillation

Each layer of the multi-layered structure consists of two dimensions and an area that closely reflects total enrolment numbers at each level of education. With the exception of the flag pole, that should be many times higher, and the graduate levels G3 and G4, the height of each layer represents the number of years that a student is likely to spend at each stage of his school career. With the exception of the HKCEE, HKALE and Professor labels, each of the numbered acronyms to the right of the illustration describes one year of education at a particular level within the corresponding stage.

The width of each layer represents the number of students enrolled in a given stage as a proportion of the stage in which the largest number of students were enrolled during the year for which the plant was constructed -- in this case, the academic year 2001-2002. The shape of the plant varies slightly from year to year. Although the number of students enrolled in each layer is accurately represented by the respective area of each layer, a more accurate drawing would leave the edges of the plant far more ragged. For the purpose of illustration and estimation it was convenient to assume that enrolment numbers for each year of the same stage (layer) were the same.

It should be apparent that not all Hong Kong children attend kindergarten (K1-K3) and most children remain in school from primary form I (P1) to secondary form V (S5) in order to receive their basic education, whereafter significant numbers begin falling out of the system.

The distillation process becomes manifest with the results of the senior secondary (HKCEE) and university (HKALE) entrance examinations. The HKCEE and HKALE filters are illustrated by two sets of vertically drawn, thick, parallel lines. Most students sit for the HKCEE while they are still in attendance in secondary form V (S5). One typically sits for the HKALE while still in attendance in secondary form VII (S7). Thus, the HKCEE and HKALE filters pass through the layers containing grade levels K1 to S5 and K1 to S7, respectively. Notice that not everyone who meets the minimum requirements for entry into a senior secondary program (form VI and VII) enters. Entry is a competitive process that often requires higher scores. In contrast, there are more people enrolled in their first year at the university, than there are those who pass the HKALE. This is because not everyone enrolled in his first year at the university is enrolled in a three-year degree program. Many are enrolled in sub-degree programs that are offered to the general public as part of Hong Kong's lifelong learning program.12

The graduate levels (G1-G4) have been divided into two separate layers in an effort to distinguish between those who obtain only a master's degree and those who go on to complete their doctorate. As university professors typically spend their entire lives in their profession -- many at the same institution; the flag pole should be drawn far higher and thinner.

Clicking on the illustration reveals a table containing the actual numbers employed in constructing the graph.

Conjecture with fact

Based upon the information provided in the plant introduction it has been estimated, but not yet empirically demonstrated, that 60 percent of all Hong Kongers make either no or only inconsequent use of their English language training after they graduate from secondary form V.13 In order to understand how this certified waste is generated certain important assumptions are made with regard to the diagram and Hong Kong's educational system in general.
  1. Riding the system out - Many of those who sit for the HKCEE have given up hope of passing it long before they sit for it (see Tool of exclusion and Imposition without sufficient justification).
  2. Post secondary nonincentive - Once a child leaves school the punitive incentive for not studying the language disappears and what little was learned is gradually forgotten due to lack of use (see Plant introduction above).
  3. Rising potential damage - The longer one remains within the educational system, the longer one must devote time to the study of English. As a result, both the potential benefit and damage to students (sacrificed opportunity) increase the longer that the child remains in the system. (see If only there were a market and Language and social status).
  4. Hermetique and self-perpetuating system - Only those who master English and make it to the top are in a position to bring about change within the system. Unfortunately, once having arrived these social climbers have little personal incentive to do so. The system is largely self-perpetuating (see Students, teachers, and textbooks).
In the top left-hand corner of the diagram (new window) is a key entitled Waste Density. Each of the shaded boxes corresponds to a pair of numbers (weighted and unweighted) expressed by the shading in the diagram. The first number of each pair is defined in the bulleted list below. The numbers associated with each area for each layer of the diagram are found in the numbered columns 2, 3, and 4 (weighted) and 5, 6, and 7 (weighted) of table 48. Further clarification with regard to these numbers can also be found in the notes corresponding to each column.
  • Low: Number of students enrolled in a secondary form VI (or VII) program less the number of students who meet the qualifications necessary for entry into a Hong Kong university.
  • Medium: Number of students who meet the minimum qualifications for entry into a secondary form VI (or VII) program less the number of students enrolled in a secondary form VI program.
  • High: Number of students at each level less the number of students who meet the minimum qualifications for entry into a secondary form VI (or VII) program.
The first number of each pair of numbers is weighted according to the scheme provided at the top of table 48. Specifically, the numbers corresponding to the shaded areas entitled high (column 2), medium (column 3), and low (column 4) are weighted by the proportions 0.95, 0.80, and 0.70, respectively. As each pair of numbers corresponds to at least one of Hong Kong's two most important rights of passage (the HKCEE and/or the HKALE) each shaded area of the diagram represents an important structural element of Hong Kong's educational system. The weights assigned to each area were selected, so as to insure that approximately 60% of the student population was included (see graph 35a - new window). This is not to say that waste does not occur elsewhere (unshaded areas) in the system, because it surely does.14 By ignoring the waste in the unshaded areas both the amount of calculation and the level of estimated waste are reduced (see item #3 above).

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Primary sources of waste
Certified waste with a price tag

Probably the two largest sources of waste include salaries paid to those who produce the waste and the opportunity loss to students who carry the waste with them after they have graduated. The probable third and fourth largest sources of waste are the private sector's attempt to compensate for the egregious shortcomings of the public sector in the provision of truly competent English language users. The first of these two next important sources of waste include the private language and tutorial schools that cater to the language needs of promising bilingual toddlers, aspiring middle-managers, and everyone else caught in between. The second of these are English language textbook publishers forever looking for better ways to create an atmosphere of "being there". The idea is to make what is obvious a foreign language to most everyone who studies it, appear as if it were an important second language to those who must learn and teach it. The end effect is to provide Hong Kong's English language teachers with a permanent excuse for not being able to meet expectations placed on them by talented elite -- elite who have understood from an early age that appearance, deceit, and good connections go hand-in-hand with substance, fidelity, and industry, and who have managed as a result to find their way to the top of the distillation and certified waste disposal plant over which they now command.

Let us first turn to teachers' salaries -- what appears to be the single largest source of waste.

Teachers salaries
Those who would, if they only could

EARTH estimates that annual government expenditure on day school teachers' salaries in 2001-02 amounted to just over HK$20 billion (see column 4 and note 3 table 50).15 Of this total, somewhat under HK$4 billion were likely spent on English language classroom instruction (see column 6 table 50). Employing the data found in table 48 and calculating a corresponding fraction of waste for each level of education (column 3 table 50) yields an annual estimate of total wasted expenditure on low quality, oversupplied English language instruction equal to HK$2.4 billion. This represents exactly 5.2% of Hong Kong's total recurrent government expenditure on all levels of education including tertiary teaching and research (see table 52c). As a fraction of only pre-primary, primary, and secondary education the percentage of waste is much higher at 7.5%.16 In short, elimination of this waste could represent an important source of savings to Hong Kong tax payers, or alternatively an important opportunity for the Hong Kong government to provide better quality English language education to those who will someday make good use of it.

Opportunity cost to children
Hong Kong's waste bearers

Of course, the story does not end with Hong Kong's democratically deprived taxpayers. Children are the easiest exploited citizens of any society, and Hong Kong is no exception. One of the most important refrains coming from the Hong Kong government with regard to the universal English language (UEL) requirement is equal opportunity. According to the government it would be unfair, if all Hong Kong children were not provided with the same opportunity to master English. What the government does not say, is at what point in a child's school career does equal opportunity become an excuse for government negligence with regard to educational waste.

Column 5 table 49 provides us with a probable accurate estimate of the opportunity cost to Hong Kong children who receive no or only negligible return after they graduate from their many years of classroom English language training. The loss is phenomenal -- only slightly less than that to Hong Kong taxpayers who pay the salaries of teachers who provide the training that leads to no reward. In terms of government recurrent expenditure on all levels of education this HK$2.37 billion (US$394 million) of wasted time and energy comes to about 5.1% (table 52c). As a fraction of government recurrent expenditure on only pre-primary, primary, and secondary education this same amount tallies in at 7.4%.17

Those, who would argue that Hong Kong employers require English to run their businesses had better take a closer look at what the market demands under conditions of free certified waste. In April 2004 eighteen out of 40 employers required either no English or just enough to write the English alphabet -- so-called little fluency (see table 44). Of the remaining 22 employers who required nominal fluency -- say, grade E or better on the HKCEE no one was willing to pay for it (see note 4 table 44)!

Now, try to imagine what demand would be like under market conditions (new window) where employers were required to compensate Hong Kong school leavers for their lost opportunity and were required to reimburse Hong Kong taxpayers for the amount their government spends on English language teachers to insure that Hong Kong children suffer this loss. Perhaps then, you might be better able to entertain the targeted 60% that this diagram has sought to identify and that Hong Kong managers and government education administrators (pdf document 40KB) refuse to consider.18

Other sources of waste

Of course, neither of EARTH's estimates with regard to teachers' salaries and the opportunity cost to Hong Kong children even touch upon the two other primary sources of waste mentioned at the beginning of this section -- namely, the cost of private language and tutorial schools and the profligate waste undertaken by the English language textbook industry. A brief review of the number of Singaporean children enrolled in private language and tutorial schools should be enough to wetten your appetite for understanding about what is likely occurring in Hong Kong's private sector. Of course, for small economies like Hong Kong and Singapore we are probably looking at only a couple hundred million US dollars. For larger economies such as South Korea and Taiwan we are looking at many more hundreds of millions. By the time we get to Japan the US dollar value of private sector waste must be in the low billions. Will what is surely not yet true on the Chinese mainland someday be worth at least what the United States is currently spending in the Middle East and Central Asia each year on war? Add to this what is expended in the English language textbook industry and the number of wasted hours spent at home by children in preparation for the additional time they spend wasted in classrooms across Asia and we can likely fund a new world government!


There is a very important need for reassessment on the part of the Hong Kong and other East Asian governments with regard to their current language policies.

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1 This was money spent per individual -- not per student. Obviously the amount spent per student was much higher in each society. How much was spent on average per student would not be proportional across societies, however. This is because demographic factors such as aging come into play. As people tend to live longer in Hong Kong (see table 34 under life expectancy - new window), the relative amount spent on Hong Kong children may be even less than that suggested by GNP per capita expenditure. (text)

2 See Real incentives and poor excuses (new window) under the subsection entitled Hong Kong's Neighbors for a more detailed examination of Hong Kong's income distribution and its effect on Hong Kong education. (text)

3 A Hong Kong basic education consists of nine years of formal public school training beginning at primary one and finishing at secondary three. (text)

4 (HK$6,635/month) X 12 months = HK$79,620/year, and
(HK$7,462/month) X 12 months = HK$89,544/year. See column 3 table 45 (new windows). Then, HK$56,788 / HK$79,620 = 0.713 = 71.3%, and HK$76,702 / HK$89,544 = 0.857 = 85.7%. See columns 5 and 3 table 46 (new windows), respectively. (text)

5 This value can be obtained by multiplying the values in each row of columns (1) and (4) of table 49 and then summing across all rows. The exact figure comes to HK$3,681,916,982. Dividing this value by HK$7.79/US$ obtains US$472,646,596. (text)

Recurrent expenditure on education in 2001-2002 was HK$46,244 million. Dividing HK$3,682 million into HK$46,244 million yields 0.0796 = 7.96%. Source: The Government of Hong Kong Special Administration Region. Education and Manpower Bureau. [online document - new window] (26 April 2004) Press releases and publications/Figures and statistics/General information on education in Hong Kong/Government expenditure on education. EARTH's copy available on request. (text)

7 On January 23, 2003 the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research sponsored a public consultation on the results of their report entitled Language Education Review. During this consultation it was stressed by the panelists that the single most important problem in their assessment was motivation. We were told that 60% of all students were lacking in proper motivation. See also SCOLAR. 2003 (January). Action plan to raise language standards in Hong Kong. Chapter 3.3 - How motivated are our students? [electronic document] EARTH's copy is available here (pdf document - 332KB). (text)

8 For a more thorough discussion of these points please open to the subsection entitled Hong Kong's principal trade partners (new window). (text)

For a more thorough discussion of these points please open to the subsection entitled Hong Kong's neighbors (new window). (text)

For a more thorough discussion of these points please open to the subsections entitled Language as tool (new window). (text)

For a more thorough discussion of these points please open to the subsections entitled Language as medium (An image for adults - new window). (text)

The layer represented by U3 has probably been drawn far too wide, as there are likely fewer first degree graduates each year, than there are HKALE passes. Nevertheless, the total area represented by the three grades level U1, U2, and U3 remains accurate. As waste within the unshaded areas is not included in the estimate, this apparent misrepresentation can have no effect on the estimated results. (text)

13 Indeed, a primary purpose of the section entitled Quality Assessment (new window) is to provide convincing evidence as to why the HKLNA-Project should be funded and thus enabled to demonstrate empirically the true and exact extent of the conjectured waste. See Project Index (new window) for both a brief glimpse (new window) at a fully detailed proposal (pdf document - 1MB) to achieve this very end. (text)

14 This is based on direct observation made in the Economics Department of The Chinese University of Hong Kong between August 2000 and July 2001. Other evidence can also be found in figure 22 of Appendix 1 of EARTH's first project proposal entitled Understanding the nature, cause, magnitude, and direction of English language attrition in Hong Kong society - Measurement and assessment (pdf document - 1MB). (text)

15 According to the Education and Manpower Bureau's 2004-05 budget, EMB recurrent expenditure in 2003-04 was just under HK$30 billion (HK$29,737,796,000). According to the Education and Manpower Bureau's website government recurrent expenditure on education in 2001-02 was HK$46.2 billion. Subtracting from this latter figure the amount spent on tertiary education (HK$46,244 million X 0.31 = HK$14,335,640,000) in 2001-2002 yields HK$31,908,360,000 (just under HK$32 billion). Dividing EARTH's estimate into both figures yields a fraction of total recurrent government expenditure ranging between
64.6% and 69.3%. In light of the fact that education is a labor-intensive industry worldwide, and Hong Kong primary and secondary teachers appear to be among the best paid in the world (graph 79 - new window) EARTH's estimate probably falls short of what is truly expended. Source: Please see the bottom of table 52c (new window) for precise references. (text)

16 In 2001-02 a full 31% of total recurrent expenditure was devoted to tertiary education. Thus, the amount spent on all other levels of education in 2001-02 was equal to HK$46,244 million X (1 - 0.31) = 31,908 million. Dividing EARTH's waste estimate of HK$2,395 million into this latter figure yields 0.0751 or 7.5%.

17 Measured in 2004 entry-level job wages the annual opportunity cost to Hong Kong also-rans came in at HK$2,371,207,573. Dividing this figure HK$31,908 million yields 0.0743 or 7.4%, only slightly less than that found for teachers' salaries devoted to the same wasteful instruction.

18 In a report entitled "Summary Findings of 2002 Establishment Survey on Manpower Training and Job Skills Requirements" we are told, "[a]nalysed by occupation category, the establishments preferred their managers and administrators to focus on enhancement of management skills, their professionals and associate professionals on IT skills and their clerks and their service workers and shop sales workers on language skills." Italics added. EARTH's copy available here (pdf document - 24KB). See p. 4, item #23.
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