Exodus of university students and professors continues

Record numbers of students and academics are leaving Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities – including some of the top universities in Asia – for the second year in a row, according to the latest official figures. Experts say declining freedoms in the city are a major push factor.

Some 2,302 undergraduates at Hong Kong’s eight public universities left their courses before completing them in the 2021-22 academic year, according to figures released this month by Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee which funds public universities.

This amounts to 2.7% of some 86,000 undergraduates in public universities, which is 4% higher than the previous year, 2020-21, which also saw a record number of early departures – up 24% compared to the 2019-20 academic year.

At the University of Hong Kong (HKU), one of Asia’s top ranked universities, around 2.5% of its student body or around 427 students quit prematurely in 2021-22. At the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) it was 2.1%, or some 358 dropouts.

But the biggest losses were at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) which lost 3.5% of its student body or 448 students, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), scene of major campus clashes during the 2019 unrest, which lost 2.9% or 447 students, compared with 346 the previous year.

The number of academic staff who left Hong Kong’s public universities was up by 30% on the previous year. At 362, it was the highest number of academic departures since 1997-98 – the year of the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to China, according to the latest figures.

High emigration among young people

Experts said that prior to 2019 it was highly unusual for students in Hong Kong to abandon degree courses midway. But now it has become “almost normal”.

Hong Kong saw a major exodus, mainly of professionals, following the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019 and since the introduction of the National Security Law (NSL) in July 2020, which led to a particularly high dropout rate from primary and secondary schools as families emigrated. Now, young people are also leaving for universities overseas.

During 2022, voter records show that some 113,200 people over the age of 18 left Hong Kong during the year. The number of registered voters aged 18-20 dropped by 40% during the year, according to the official voter registry.

According to census data, Hong Kong’s population fell from 7.52 million at the end of 2019 to 7.29 million in mid-2022. The number of people aged 20-29 shrank from 11.8% of the city’s population in 2019 to 9.9% in 2022.

Countries such as Britain, Canada and Australia have introduced pathways to permanent residence for Hongkongers after the Beijing-imposed NSL came into force in July 2020.

Hugo Horta, an associate professor in the faculty of education at HKU, said student departures were “unsurprising” since education abroad was often a springboard to an eventual move abroad.

“It is likely many students entered Hong Kong universities but kept applying for universities abroad and those who got accepted took the chance and moved. Others possibly are following their families as they are moving abroad,” Horta told University World News.

Horta said another reason for student dropouts before graduation was “to do with the deterioration of financial and economic conditions of some families because the impact of the pandemic was troublesome for the Hong Kong economy and the finances of some families”.

Universities’ response

A spokesperson at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) said: “Each year all universities have a small number of students enrolling in undergraduate programmes [who] discontinue their studies because of various reasons including personal and academic reasons. The figures vary from time to time due to many factors.”

The spokesperson added: “The percentage of undergraduate students who discontinued their studies at HKU last year is average among other universities. The university will continue to provide support to students who may have difficulties to continue their studies.

“By the same token, academic staff leave the university for a variety of reasons, including retirement, termination or completion of contracts, or resignations,” the spokesperson said.

“However, the number of academic staff recruited at HKU over the past few years has consistently been much higher than staff outflow. We have been continuously recruiting world-renowned professors and high potential young scholars to join HKU to further enhance our strength in research as well as teaching and learning.”

Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement at CUHK, told University World News: “We see no statistically significant variation in the data and note that there were actually 32 fewer students departing the university compared to the prior year.

“The student departures in the 2021-22 year represented 2.1% of the undergraduate student body. We would point out this is significantly below a range of international peer benchmark jurisdictions, and that the commencement of the 2022-23 academic year saw one of CUHK’s strongest intakes ever.”

Staff departures

Pearcey added: “In terms of staff movement, 2020-21 saw a net increase of 26 positions, and the 2021-22 year saw a net increase of four staff.”

Staff departures show a mixed picture between universities. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) saw the biggest jump in staff departures, with 56 academics leaving in 2021-22, almost double compared to 24 academic departures the year before.

A spokesperson from HKUST said the university had been “actively recruiting talents in the past years to build our academic and research excellence. At the same time, the university sees faculty members leaving the university every year for different factors, including completion of contracts, reaching retirement age or personal considerations.”

The spokesperson added that “the number of new faculty hires over the past five years [from 2017-18 to 2021-22] was higher than the number of faculty leaving HKUST”.

He also noted that in 2021-22 some academic staff left the HKUST Hong Kong campus for HKUST’s new Guangzhou campus in China which opened in September 2022. While the two campuses are separate legal entities, they collaborate and work together closely.

Carsten Holz, professor of social science at HKUST, said it was difficult to say why students and particularly academics were leaving Hong Kong without detailed breakdowns such as retirement versus non-retirement related departures, and by discipline.

National Security Law a ‘decisive factor’

In HKUST’s social science division, the first wave of departures after the imposition of the National Security Law “consisted of NSL-induced early retirements and the return of faculty to positions earlier held overseas”, according to Holz.

Holz, who is a visiting professor at Princeton University in the United States for the current academic year, told University World News that “about half the faculty of the social science division at HKUST has departed since the imposition of the so-called National Security Law on 30 June 2020”.

“While different faculty may give different reasons, for virtually all departures the imposition of the NSL was the decisive factor, with some departing faculty members explicitly mentioning their fear for their personal safety,” he said.

“NSL-induced departures are necessarily spread over a few years, as faculty gradually grasp the implications for their research and teaching, and experience the shifts in departmental and school climate that are happening as a consequence,” Holz said, adding that generating a job offer elsewhere also takes time and tends to be a matter of years rather than months.

“NSL de facto put an end to academic freedom. Academics either self-censor or leave. While courses on Hong Kong politics have completely disappeared from the curriculum, across practically all social science courses faculty members now have to consider if they can cover a topic or not, and if something they say will be reported by a student to the NSL police,” according to Holz.

Holz noted the social science division at HKUST has “held more than a dozen job interviews for regular academic posts over the past three months, trying to re-fill the many empty slots, and it has further advertised for teaching track faculty”. But, according to Holz, “HKUST’s administration appears to have made little if any effort to retain existing faculty”.

Horta agreed that academic departures are “likely just the continuation of the outflow of academics that started with the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong”.

“Some academics simply decided to leave and, from what I have heard from colleagues in different universities, hiring international staff to come to Hong Kong has become much more difficult,” he told University World News. “Some people left earlier, others took a bit more time to put their business in order and prepare for a new life elsewhere.”

Horta said he was aware of a colleague that recently left to take up another academic job abroad, and others still preparing to leave. “The difference with academics who are currently leaving is that they may be leaving with a guaranteed job abroad, having secured a new academic position in a new country first, while many of the academics who left earlier “simply left without necessarily securing a guaranteed job beforehand”.

While Hong Kong’s top universities have been offering extra scholarships to improve the stay-on rate, they noted that applications from students from the Chinese mainland are reaching all-time highs.

However, undergraduate and taught postgraduate foreign student numbers, including students from the mainland, are capped at 20% of the student body at Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee in October also acknowledged the problem of retaining talent in Hong Kong and announced new measures to attract graduates from the world’s top 100 universities, including two-year visas to work in Hong Kong.