Universities offer scholarships to counter city exodus

Faced with an exodus from Hong Kong severely affecting the city’s school population, several Hong Kong universities have unveiled generous new scholarships for top students and set up special counselling groups to encourage students to stay in Hong Kong for higher education rather than go abroad.

Hong Kong is seeing record levels of emigration of families, particularly those with school age children, since the National Security Law was imposed on the city in July 2020. Pandemic restrictions, which have been stricter than many Western countries in the past two years, have added to the exodus.

A survey released in May by the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools conducted in December 2021 found that 140 secondary schools lost nearly 4,500 pupils in the last academic year, a jump from the 2,700 reported in each of the previous two years. Schools are seeing empty seats and are amalgamating classes.

Recent figures from Hong Kong’s Education Bureau showed a total of 30,515 students of all ages had left schools in Hong Kong between October 2020 and last September, with the school population dropping from about 810,000 to 780,000. About 15,000 students left secondary schools and the exodus has continued, with withdrawals highest in summer as students leave before the new academic year.

Though declining to provide figures, universities in the city reported more students turning down offers of places, as students take up places abroad. Competition between universities in Hong Kong for the best students has increased.

Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) this week announced that it would increase the number of scholarships for the brightest students – those with distinction-level grades in at least seven subjects in the local school-leaving exam, Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE).

It said it expects up to 740 students, out of an annual first-year undergraduate enrolment of around 3,000, to qualify for the scholarships, compared to 310 previously.

CUHK has set aside HK$19 million (US$2.4 million) for such scholarships this year – 40% more than in 2021, offering scholarship amounts on a sliding scale, depending on the number of distinctions achieved. The highest-performing students will be eligible for free tuition, an annual allowance of HK$37,900 plus a HK$80,000 grant “for more than one overseas or exchange activity”.

The university in the past offered a HK$62,100 grant per year and HK$30,000 for overseas exchanges.

The number of students to quit their studies at Hong Kong’s eight government-funded universities in the 2020-21 academic year jumped by a record 24% compared to the year before, according to official figures from the city’s University Grants Commission.

Hong Kong University (HKU), one of the top-ranked universities in Asia, lost the most students – 445 (2.6%) dropped out – a 30% increase compared to 2019-20. CUHK saw 398 students (2.3%) leave, up from 305 (1.7%) the year before.

This year, CUHK has said it would also provide advice and counselling for secondary school pupils to persuade them to stay in Hong Kong.

Ng Po-shing, a student guidance consultant at the non-profit Hok Yau Club, was quoted by the Hong Kong Standard newspaper as saying the CUHK scheme will help attract bright students to Hong Kong instead of going overseas and enable CUHK to compete with other local universities.

“For top students faced with programmes of similar academic qualities, factors like scholarships are a concern,” he told the local Hong Kong Standard newspaper.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), another top university in the city, is also awarding ‘automatic’ scholarships to local students who attain at least one distinction in higher mathematics. Scholarships on offer range from HK$5,000 to HK$97,100 – the latter consisting of full tuition fee exemption plus living allowance of up to HK$55,000 per annum.

The number of HKUST students receiving HKDSE scholarships in its 2021 intake had already increased by 25% compared with the 2020 intake, the university said.

A University of Hong Kong (HKU) spokesperson said: “We receive overwhelming applications from students in Hong Kong, the (Chinese) Mainland and overseas each year, and admission to the university remains highly competitive, even during the pandemic.

“We are confident that we will continue receiving high-quality students to study at the University.”

Universities are also trying to make admissions more flexible for applicants who have spent the past two years learning under COVID conditions, allowing them to take up places even if they drop a grade, and taking wider achievements into account.

Rise in top IB students wanting to go abroad

Students in Hong Kong taking the International Baccalaureate exams, mainly enrolled at international schools, have always had a tendency to go abroad for university studies and continue to do so in large numbers, but Hong Kong’s top universities, particularly their medical schools, are concerned at the increase in top-scoring students saying they plan to study overseas.

Of some 36 students who scored the maximum number of points in the International Baccalaureate exam this year at the English Schools Foundation (ESF) – which, with 22 schools, is the largest group of English-medium schools in Hong Kong – 60% said they will leave Hong Kong to study abroad, according to ESF figures this June.

Last year, 24 out of 46, or 52% of the top scorers chose to study overseas, many of them to study medicine.

Teacher exodus has an impact on schools

Schools and universities are also seeing high staff turnover due to the emigration wave and teachers leaving the profession due to pressures of online teaching and the National Security Law which has seen new textbooks brought into the curriculum. Teachers must now swear an oath of allegiance to Hong Kong and to uphold the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini constitution.

Foreign teachers of English language teaching in government schools were also required to sign a declaration by 21 June in order to continue in their jobs in the next academic year.

The Education Bureau revealed in May that at least 4,050 teachers, or 7.6% of the teaching workforce, left their jobs in the current school year – a 70% increase from the 2,380 who quit the year before. The provisional dropout figure for the current school year is also a nearly twofold increase compared with four years ago, it said.

The departure of students from elite secondary schools had eased pressure for families aiming for top secondaries, which feed into Hong Kong’s best universities, but one parent told University World News: “I am also worried about the departure of so many teachers; what will that mean for the quality of secondary education in Hong Kong? Although my daughter is in a good secondary, we see both teachers and students leaving in the middle of the school year. It has made me think we should also make plans.”

According to a report in May by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents private schools in the United Kingdom, the number of Hong Kong pupils in UK private schools whose parents also live in the country has more than tripled in a year following the launch of the UK government’s visa scheme for those with British National (Overseas) or BNO passports.

BNO passports were issued to Hong Kong people prior to the British Colony’s handover to China in 1997. Britain launched the BNO visa scheme in response to Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020.

Almost 7,400, or 13% of about 56,000 non-British pupils in UK private schools are from Hong Kong – a 25% increase from last year.

ISC chairman Barnaby Lenon said in the report. “There has been a notable increase in Hong Kong pupils with parents in the UK, reflecting the UK government’s positive stance in offering visas to British Nationals (Overseas).”

According to the British government, about 5.4 million people among Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million are eligible for the BNO visa scheme, which allows successful applicants and their dependants to live, work and study in the UK for up to five years and then apply for citizenship after six years.

Some 123,400 Hong Kong people applied under the scheme between January 2021 and March this year, with 113,742 winning approval.

During the first quarter of 2022, the number of Hongkongers applying for the scheme rose by 25% in comparison with the three months that preceded it, showing that departures have been accelerating.

Last year, 19,064 Hongkongers were granted Canadian study or work permits, including extensions, more than four times the number granted in 2019.

The Hong Kong government continues to downplay the mass exodus, insisting that those who have departed had left mainly due to pandemic controls and would “eventually return”.