By Heidy Lo

DSE. Three letters that strike fear into every Hong Kong student and cause debilitating anxiety. As someone who has experienced the DSE and who now works as a tutor for this year’s cohort, I want to reflect on this destructively stressful examination and its long-term effects. With this year’s exams starting, we need to raise awareness of the tremendous pressure Hong Kong students are under and be mindful of its dangers.

Photo: Stand News.

Hong Kong’s Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) – the public examination students take in the final year of secondary school – is among the most high-pressure exams in the world. The DSE has a relatively low coursework element and less flexibility – compared with the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the AS and A2 Level exams in the UK – so the fate of students comes down to the final two weeks of exams rather than the pressure being spread throughout the year.

Furthermore, university entry requirements in Hong Kong are almost solely DSE-based, drawing a straight connection between the DSE and future employability that cranks up the pressure on students even further. According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, the unemployment rate was 2.5 percent in January 2017 for people with a BA degree, while it is more than double that for those without one.

For prestigious universities like HKU, the graduate employment rate has been close to 100 per cent for over a decade. With the DSE as the only gateway to these vital qualifications, the pressure is enormous.

This can have disastrous consequences. Since 2013, the second year of the DSE, about 71 students have committed suicide. For students, there are immense stress levels and various forms of mental illness. During the last months of secondary school, work piles up, extra lessons and tutor classes take up all free time and expectations from various angles suffocate the students.

Fear of missing out without a “superstar tutor” adds further worry. At the same time, tutors like Billy Ng expect students to deal with it all, saying things like: “Young people just have to get over the pressure. That’s life.” One student from this year’s cohort described the pressure they are under as “so overwhelming that I was unable to catch my breath.”

student suicide
A protest raising awareness of student suicides. Photo: Albert Chan.

A former DSE student myself, I remember those final exams as the worst time of my life. I became depressed, suffered from high levels of stress and I can now see that my teenage self was unable to handle this stress, combined with all the other emotions of being a young person.

Expectations from my family, friends, teachers, classmates and from myself pushed me close to the edge. I became unable to eat, I suffered from chronic insomnia and I closed myself off socially.

I am not a social person by nature, but due to the pressure of the DSE I essentially became mute. Though I still interacted with people superficially, I never talked about my feelings and felt I should not do so because there was nothing unique about my experience: everyone was going through the same thing.

After finishing the DSE, I thought I had recovered from the ordeal but even now in times of high pressure my body can revert to the intense fight or flight mode created by the DSE and the negative symptoms can reappear. The intense stress of the DSE period has a potentially traumatic effect that can remain with students long after the event.

In the long term, changes must be made in universities’ entry requirements and in the DSE system itself to ease the pressure on students. In the meantime, we may have to settle for raising awareness of the pressures involved in this uniquely traumatic exam, and paying careful attention to those going through the process in the next two months.

Heidy Lo is a survivor of the 2015 DSE. She is a local student in Hong Kong completing her undergraduate degree in English and working as a tutor of DSE students.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.