I find this difficult to believe, but at a time when adults are being required to gather in groups of no more than four, and a lot of traditional gathering places like bars, parks and gyms are closed because of Covid-19 fears, thousands of local schoolkids are being herded into halls and classrooms where they can all breathe the same air for two hours.

Of course precautions are being taken. Health declarations and temperature taking are required, everyone will wear masks, the desks will be further apart than usual. But this may not be enough. Keep your fingers crossed. It’s a risk.

This year’s HKDSE candidates revising their face masks on. Photo: Stand News.

The reason why we are running this risk is a sacred educational cow called the Diploma of Secondary Education, an exam which all Hong Kong students take at the end of Form Six.

I am not personally happy with this. Doing an exam in a sort of purdah is going to affect performance and it will affect some people’s performance more than others. Some students who have diligently prepared for months will be turned away at the door because they have a temperature, which will be an experience to remember for the rest of your life.

So why bother? After all there are other ways of assessing students’ readiness to face the world. The reason slipped out in a news bulletin the other day in which the DSE was described as “the university entrance exam”.

The Examination Authority, an independent non-government body but one which tries to please, has been under tremendous pressure to hold the exam. Most of this pressure, I believe, has come from universities.

We may note in passing that the DSE was not originally supposed to be a “university entrance exam”. It was supposed to be an end-of-schooling qualification for everyone. In practice, to be of much use to universities, it has to be pretty useless for other purposes.

This means that many students who have already discovered that university is not for them are required to take an exam which will do nothing for them, and in which they may well fail every subject. Many of them know this in advance, which must be depressing.

And why, you may wonder, are the universities so addicted to the results of this particular ordeal? This is a good question. In the old days, when students were admitted by the course they were going to study, the teachers presiding over admissions could and did administer tests and interviews. Exam results were part of the system but they did not dominate it. The absence of A Levels because of an epidemic would have been inconvenient but not catastrophic.

Then came four-year degrees. With four-year degrees came the idea that the extra year at the beginning of the degree should be wasted on a lot of general stuff, with students choosing their major at the end of it. A corollary of this was that admission should be by faculty or school, not by course or programme, so as to cater for students who were not sure what they wanted to do.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

The result of this is that applications now come in batches of a thousand, or several thousands for a popular offering, and you are not allowed to consider what the student actually intends to choose at the end of the first year, if he or she knows what it is. So it is nobody’s job to consider admissions in detail. They must be processed in bulk.

This rules out all consideration by a human brain. The only significant inputs now are the students’ choices and the DSE results. A computer puts them together and spits out one offer per student.

University staff can spend the whole summer doing research, and levels of student demand for different courses are conveniently overruled by having quotas at the end of year one. Everyone is happy. Well everyone whose opinion is taken seriously is happy. The students are not consulted.

I am not sure we can blame the people who devised this system for the fact that it really doesn’t suit a society in a state of lockdown because of a virus epidemic. Like so many computer-based innovations it is capable but fragile.

HKDSE candidates inside a classroom. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Still, this rather worrying situation is a mere symptom of a disastrous development which has been going on for a long time. Universities have abandoned the idea that their major activity is preparing young people for their lives in the outside world. Their major activity now is preparing the next generation of university staff, and teaching undergraduates is just a lucrative sideline extracting large sums of money from taxpayers or parents.

I did not expect this to lead to life-threatening innovations, but life in a time of pandemic is full of surprises.

So let us pass on to a more amusing one. It appears there is a hospital in Paris which still has the time and the capacity to do a full medical history for each virus patient, and they noticed a curious anomaly.

The proportion of people in one category was much smaller in the patient population than in the population at large. This category with a mysterious resistance to Covid infection was … smokers.

It seems that, in this respect at least, the much-maligned weed is good for you. It may increase your susceptibility to everything else from athlete’s foot to Zarathustra’s elbow, but where Covid is concerned smokers get a health boost.

The French doctors said, and I hasten to pass this on, that smoking is so bad for you in other ways that they do not recommend taking it up as a virus defence. But they are experimenting with nicotine patches to see if that helps.

My experience of smoking in France was that most people, at least at the grassroots level, smoked a cigarette called “Gauloise” which was ferociously strong, an abrasive throat experience that put in the shade anything you could get in England, even the notorious and expensive unfiltered “Capstan Full Strength”.

So it may be that French smokers’ lungs are so used to being assailed by poisons that they take the odd virus in their stride.

Still, if you want to try protection without poison, nicotine patches are a prescription item but I think you can buy nicotine chewing gum in chemists’ shops. Snuff would be the easiest solution but the Hong Kong government banned it years ago.

If it were legal you could (nudge, wink) order it online. Far too early to say if this helps, of course. But better for you than injecting Dettol, at least.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.