It is becoming increasing clear that the Hong Kong school system is approaching a crisis.

The figures tell the story: Education Bureau data show that the number of vacancies in primary and secondary schools reached nearly 5,200 between July and October of this year. 

File Photo: SKH St James’ Primary School on National Security Education Day. Photo: GovHK.

The problem is especially acute in secondary schools, where students are fleeing the system for schools overseas, on the mainland and in Macau, according to a survey of 140 secondary schools conducted by the Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools. The survey revealed that nearly 4,500 students, not to mention 987 teachers, had abandoned the system in the past academic year, twice as many as those who called it quits in 2019-20. 

That’s an average loss of 32 students and seven teachers per school, which certainly qualifies as what the association has called “a brain drain.”

The survey also showed that 60 per cent of those students had left the city altogether while teachers were emigrating at a rate seven times higher than in the previous year. 

The United Kingdom is the preferred destination for the departing students. The 2,679 child student visas issued by the UK to Hongkongers aged 4 to 17 from January to September is the highest number on record since the British government began keeping a full account in 2010. 

Indeed, the student recruitment manager at Aston Education, Iris Yip Yuen-ting, recently told a South China Morning Post reporter that some of the top independent schools in the UK have stopped accepting Hongkongers because they get too many applications from students in the city. These schools want to maintain a balanced mix of international students rather than admit a disproportionate number from one part of the world. 

Going back to the city’s colonial days, many well-heeled, elite Hong Kong students have long favoured a British education for its cachet and also, frankly, because Hong Kong schools had a poor reputation for education by relentless drilling and memorisation.

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

Following the implementation of the Beijing-imposed national security law in the summer of 2020 and the subsequent supercharged campaign to ramp up patriotism in schools as well as in just about every other aspect of Hong Kong life, parents and students have a lot more reasons to consider leaving. 

Students now sit in classrooms where teachers are afraid to bring up sensitive topics such as the military assault on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, an onslaught that left hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Certainly, Hong Kong’s months-long pro-democracy protests of 2019 and 2020 are also off limits. 

Liberal Studies, introduced into the secondary school curriculum in 2009 as a core subject intended to enhance social awareness and critical thinking skills, has been largely eviscerated in the past year and renamed Citizenship and Social Development after pro-Beijing politicians dubiously blamed the course for fomenting the unrest that rocked the city in 2019 and 2020. 

Under the revamped curriculum, the emphasis will be on patriotism, China’s national development and strict adherence to the law, particularly the national security law. 

Doesn’t that sound like fun? The only thing worse than taking this course would be teaching it. No wonder so many Hong Kong teachers have tossed in the towel.  

Even in Hong Kong primary schools, students will be inculcated in patriotism and receive lessons on the national security law. “Love China, love Hong Kong” is the new educational mantra. 

Parents, students, teachers, principals—everybody sees what’s happening: the space for free thinking in Hong Kong schools is shrinking fast, and those with the financial means to do so are jumping ship. 

File Photo: Hong Kong students wearing masks. Photo: GovHK.

Officials like to cite Covid-19 as a big reason for the exodus, but that doesn’t add up. Covid-19 is ravaging most of the rest of the world at a much greater rate than Hong Kong. Students and their families know that their health is safer in Hong Kong. It’s their brains that are under threat. 

Sadly, though, with annual fees at posh private British schools, including popular boarding schools, ranging from HK$350,000 to HK$530,000 (US$44,800 to US$68,000), most Hong Kong students aren’t going anywhere. 

Those with money can run away. Those without must stay and beat the patriotic drum. 

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.