Thousands swell queue to join profession in search for job security as global economic crisis worsens
The global economic slump has seen young people flood into teaching, despite rising concern about the workload and criticism of Hong Kong's quality of education.
The dramatic downturn of the past year has seen demand for both teacher-training places and jobs in the field rise dramatically as teaching is often seen as a secure career path.
The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) received a record 18,789 applications this year for its three degree programmes, an increase of 30 per cent on last year. The institute offers degrees in primary and secondary education and has this year launched a new programme in languages education.
The secondary education programme was the most popular, attracting 7,577 applications. Its enrollees specialise in either art, music, physical education or design and technology.
Schools have also noted an increase in applications for teaching posts in the past two years as job opportunities elsewhere have shrunk in the wake of the increasingly sluggish economy, and a recent rise in corporate cutbacks and lay-offs is expected to see another surge of applications for next year.
Chinese University assistant education professor Cecilia Chan Ka-wai expected demand for postgraduate certificate courses in teacher-training to grow as students sought to keep the option of teaching open.
'Unlike other sectors, which are laying off staff, education is a field that is expanding. In the coming years there will be new openings, with the planned community colleges and teaching assistant posts in schools,' she noted.
The principal of Shi Hui Wen Secondary School in Tuen Mun, Choi Wing-tim, said his school received more than 1,000 applications from teachers in the past two years, even though the school had not advertised any vacancies.
'The letters came from people who offered to teach. Some had been laid off in the commercial sector,' he said. The flood of applications has been in stark contrast to the early 1980s, when there was a grave shortage of teachers, he said.
Graduates from the only two universities at that time - the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University - were lured away from schools by better paid jobs in the commercial sector.
The improved social status of teachers in recent years may also account for the profession's growing appeal, he added.
The increased focus on teaching was reinforced earlier this month when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa pledged more funding to alleviate teachers' workload at an official function marking Teachers' Day.
HKIEd's deputy director Pang King-chee said improved government funding and the wide-ranging reform initiatives were also contributory factors.
'Teaching is a meaningful job. A well trained teacher who can manage his class well derives a strong sense of satisfaction from his work,' he said.
Teacher supply nosedived again in the mid-1990s when university graduates were drawn to booming sectors such as the computer industry, said veteran secondary teacher and member of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, Wong Hak-lim. But teachers today face tremendous workload pressure, as a survey by his union showed last week. Sixty-three per cent of the 2,779 primary and secondary school teachers polled said their work pressure was overbearing, and 35 per cent reportedly worked between 11 and 12 hours a day.
The scale of the ongoing education reforms has failed to deter many would-be teachers. Howard Lam Ho, a first-year BEd student at HKIEd, said he had always wanted to be a teacher and would not be put off by the reforms. He said he had always wanted to pass on his knowledge of Chinese culture and history. 'It is a challenging profession to me and whether reforms are under way or not has nothing to do with my study choice,' he said.
Although applications for education programmes at the Chinese University fell from 2,000 last year to 1,500, the figure still represented an increase of 500 from 1997. The university began offering a primary education degree programme last year. The successful applicants also achieved good grades, with either a credit in English or Chinese in the HK A-Level Examination, according to Professor Chan. The Bachelor of Education in Language programme at the University of Hong Kong saw only a marginal increase, however, with 2,031 applications, up from 2,002 last year. Additional teacher-training places were also created with this year's launch of an education degree programme by Baptist University. The four-year programme combines general education with practical secondary school training.
Department of Education Studies head Ma Hing-keung said it planned to raise the number of places from 20 this year to 60 next year. He attributed the growing preference for teaching to the economic downturn, but declined to reveal application numbers for the new academic year.
'Unlike other sectors, which are laying off staff, education is a field that is expanding'