Education Challenges in Hong Kong

Written by Gianna Chen

The sociocultural context of Hong Kong 

Hong Kong’s education system has undergone various influences. The colonization period by the British Empire after the Opium War introduced the English language as the medium of instruction (EMI). The four years of Japanese occupation transformed Hong Kong into the centre of international trade and further emerged as the centre of industry, business, and finance during the period between 1945 and 1997. Consequently, the population increase rapidly with migrants moving from mainland China and other South Asian countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Shortage of teachers, unequal distribution of resources and differences in education opportunities were shortly followed as a result. Since the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, the promotion of Chinese-medium instruction (CMI) in the school system has been introduced, alongside an increase in learning the Chinese language (Putonghua known as Mandarin) and culture. New problems occurred with a change in language policies and education reform after 1971, the appealing form of education that meets the needs and abilities of Cantonese-speaking students in the Chinese cultural context neglected ethnic minority students in the Education system.

Children learn about robotics. Photo by What The Fox Studio

The problem with the education system in Hong Kong 

The article further reveals the problem with Hong Kong’s education reform and the adoption of a new language policy since 1997. Given the background of Hong Kong’s diverse education system, different types of schools were introduced to support the cultural demand. There are three types of schools in Hong Kong recognized by the education bureau: Public local schools (aided schools) that are either operated by the government or by local charitable or religious organizations. Both adopted local curricula where Chinese lessons are mandatory for students, but they can be taught in either English or Chinese as a medium of instruction. However, education is provided free of charge only for Hong Kong permanent residents. Private schools that are not funded by the Hong Kong government or educational sector, provide students and parents with a language choice of English, Chinese/ English and Chinese; International schools on the other hand, have full autonomy in student admission, course content, tuition fees, and deliver curricula that are widely accepted in several countries, such as the International Baccalaureate program. It is a common choice for expatriate or English-speaking families living in Hong Kong. 

As of today, the issue of education inequality exists through different schooling systems, portraying social stratification through education opportunities, gender perception and mobility. Further calls for segregation and racial discrimination in society, limiting students’ future career prospects. Thus, by outlining the cause of unequal educational opportunities in Hong Kong, a wide range of recognition is needed to raise public awareness of Hong Kong’s education system. 

Inequalities in Education 

Education inequality not only includes opportunities to receive education, teaching recourses, faculty expenses, and continuation in participation, but the process of sustaining education opportunities should be equally desirable and concluded in the term. The educational reform in 1971 promoting 6 years of free primary education and the nine-year of compulsory education since 1978 has remarkably increased citizens’ literacy rates and life expectancy. However, while an escalation in the diffusion of education can be seen, quality and education opportunities continue to grow a gap in different groups. For instance, the 6 years of free primary education only applies to Hong Kong permanent residents with a limited number of positions open due to insufficient teaching faculties. Hence, competition rises between government-funded primary and secondary schools. Those who did not get into public local schools choose private or international schools as an alternative. Nonetheless, the quality of education differs between different types of schools. Since private schools are profit-oriented, it is often found that the teaching qualities are lower compared to public schools and international schools. Results in students from public schools or international schools having a sense of superiority among other students, enhancing education differences via grouping and alienation based on different schools and curricula. Therefore, the current contradiction in Hong Kong’s educational reform helps some children move up but keeps others on lower tracks and socializes them to blame for their own lack of success to themselves. 

On the other hand, Hong Kong’s colonial culture enforces the idea of the English language as a medium of Instruction that is more beneficial for the reason that it was presented as ‘high culture’ used by members of the dominant class. As an example, the children of high-level government servants were often exposed to situations where they have to interact with colonials through English. Accordingly, students from the dominant class are more likely to do well on examinations and graduate from upper secondary schools and go on to universities. Another social factor that contributed to this fraction is family background. It is evident that the higher the socioeconomic status of the student’s family, the higher his or her academic achievements would be. On that account, the stratification of students in different school systems prolonged the capitalist society into levels of hierarchy, where workers’ children will have lower expectations in their world-view compared to upper-level workers’ children, who will position themselves in a higher innovative position and have richer expectations of themselves. More importantly, due to an influx of migrants from the mainland after the Civil War, newly arrived children (NAC) were a large proportion of the education system. However, most NAC are deprived of fair access to equal opportunity in schooling in EMI schools for the reason that their English level was too weak, hence, they have a hard time catching up with the Hong Kongers. Prevails an averaging issue when they do not have the ability to move on to the next educational level. 

Influence of education reform and policy change 

The immediate problem after the education reform in 1971 is the increase in the number of enrolments. Nine years of compulsory education prompt a rise in schools and faculty demand. The government of Hong Kong heavily rely on opening new public schools and private schools to meet the requirement. However, due to the fact that there was never a consistent pedagogical education in the history of Hong Kong, not only there is a shortage of teaching staff, but stability in the quality of teaching is also questionable. Most teachers do not have any qualifications in teaching but merely obtained a graduate degree in secondary or college degree Moreover, it pours a great amount of stress on the teaching staff, generating mental health problems in the early stages of the reform. Despite this fact, starting from 1982 onwards, faculty training slowly begins to catch up, raising qualifications to become a teacher. While the problem begins to compromise, the new language policy after the handover in 1997 induces new challenges.

The adoption of the Chinese-oriented language policy in 1997 aimed to promote the national language in the education system under a Chinese cultural context. The majority of students are required to attend Chinese-medium schools in which English is taught as a language subject. Regarding ethnic minorities, which consist nearly 9% of Hong Kong’s population, it became harder to gain proper education in mainstream schools. On top of that, the system of designated schools, which were designated for ethnic minorities in primary and secondary education, was abolished in 2013 for the reason to boost the multicultural educational environment in Hong Kong. Chinese language learning opportunities in former designated schools were limited, therefore the abolishment act strengthens racial discrimination encountered by ethnic minorities. Considering all students in local schools must pass every Chinese examination to advance to the next grade, the lack of opportunity to study Chinese has deprived ethnic minorities of the chance to develop an interest in learning the Chinese language. While private and international schools could be an alternative for admissions, the average tuition fee of over HKD100,000 is hardly a reasonable choice for most parents and immigrant families. This subsequently leads to ethnic minorities being marginalized in the Hong Kong education curriculum. As a result, more young people from ethnic minorities were getting denied in mainstream schools and were getting involved in gangs, creating social segregation from a lack of education attainability. 

Inclusive education. Photo by The Hong Kong Society for the Deaf.

Gender Inequality 

Nevertheless, while language is becoming a barrier to reaching equal education opportunities, gender segregation has endured since the very beginning. Even though the six years of free primary education and the nine years of compulsory education have reduced family burden and influenced gender to raise education opportunities for women, family’s socioeconomic background and ‘gender segregation’ still manifest limitations for women to achieve equal academic recognition. The traditional gender value in terms of “men outside of the home, women inside” has modelled students’ gender cognition since they were young. After secondary education, gender segregation was enhanced from the subjects they choose. It is widely agreed upon in society that girls should study liberal arts, and boys should study science. The restriction of choices later on influences their advanced studies, career path and societal status. The recognition of their role was further strengthened through literature such as examples from their textbook, sexual division of labour at school, reinforcement of female quality as obedience, passive and quiet, and separation of gender in physical education classes. The stereotyping of gender roles and the unequal sexual structure in education enlarges academic achievement between men, women and third genders. Ignoring gender education as part of the curriculum, especially towards helping students to form their own self-image and realize their potential. 

Recommendations for solutions 

As an ending remark, the inequality in Hong Kong’s education system could be improved from three different aspects. To sustain the process of education opportunities provided to students, individual-level development is the keystone to the issue. Personal qualities, mutual understanding, humanitarianism and inclusivity should be addressed and respected in the system of teaching, learning and examination. On the curriculum level, more flexible language learning subjects should be adopted into the education structure. Provide ethnic minorities and newly arrived children with language support to give them equal chances in learning abilities. On top of that, neutralization in gender education is consequential to shorten the gap of gender segregation, and encourage equal opportunities for both girls and boys to find the subjects they desire and are passionate about. In addition to language and gender curriculum, recommendations on a structure level are essential, for instance, a more flexible public examination for the compulsory academic subjects, and diversity in teaching staff and faculty members are needed to approach social justice and equality. 


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