Hong Kong’s secondary schools lost almost 4,500 students and 1,000 teachers in the last academic year – an average of 32 students and seven teachers per school – due largely to emigration and raising fears of a brain drain in the city, according to a survey by head teachers.

student school education uniform rain umbrella
Photo: GovHK.

Some 60 per cent of the students withdrawn from school in 2020-21 were leaving Hong Kong while the number of emigrating teachers rose seven-fold over the previous year, according to the survey by the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools and the Hong Kong Centre for International Student Assessment at CUHK .

“A comparatively acute situation in student withdrawal from schools in 2020-21 is evident,” the report said, noting that 4,460 students left secondary schools – 1.7 times more than the two previous years.

The turnover of teachers had meanwhile “soared” from around 500 to 987, when comparing results in 2018-19 and 2019-20 to the last year.

hong kong airport departures leave
Photo: GovHK.

“Teacher turnover and teachers leaving Hong Kong reflect the problems of brain drain we face today,” the report said. “We will face the same problems in the future as some students are leaving Hong Kong today. Talent has been a very important resource and the issue of brain drain will affect the future development of Hong Kong.”

The survey was based on questionnaires collected from 140 secondary school principals between September and October. Respondents were “not very optimistic” about future trends: less than 20 per cent believed that the trend would ease.

Teachers cite ‘disrespect’

The survey showed teachers cited “overall social atmosphere,” as well as changes in “education policy and curriculum,” the professional status of teachers and “concern for family members” as reasons for leaving.

Head teachers also cited social conditions and “disrespect for and distrust of the teaching profession,” among other factors. Teachers came under close watch from pro-Beijing forces in the wake of the 2019 protests, in which young people were heavily represented, and there have also been curriculum changes in the wake of the Beijing-drafted national security law.

July 1 Pui Kiu Middle School
Attendees of a flag raising ceremony at Pui Kiu Middle School on July 1, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The departure of pupils and teachers is part of a broader trend, with 89,200 residents leaving Hong Kong from mid-2020 to mid-2021, according to official figures.

Principals were invited to give suggestions to address the issue. Some urged the Education Bureau to “strive to protect principals and teachers from malicious attacks” and to “avoid further introduction of new measures which distract teachers from focusing their work on students.”

The head teachers’ group also questioned the effectiveness of education reforms in 2000 “in face of the increasing trend of student withdrawal and teacher turnover.”

The association called for in-depth deliberations on rebuilding society’s trust in education. “The present survey is apolitical and we merely hope to explore education issues from an education perspective,” it said.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.