The Chinese proficiency level of 60 per cent of ethnic minority students in Hong Kong aged between 12 and 23 is roughly the same as that of the average primary school student, according to a study.
City University and Hong Kong Christian Service (HKCS) surveyed 378 students between March and July this year and asked them to evaluate their Chinese language level and their experience and perceptions of how Chinese language education affects their opportunities for further studies and career development.
"Although the Education Bureau has introduced some measures to help students from ethnic minority groups in recent years, the survey shows that they have failed to help them improve their Chinese competence," says Karrie Chan Chung-ho, chief supervisor of ethnic minority services at HKCS.
The survey also interviewed 107 ethnic minority job seekers, 60 per cent of whom were unable to read or write Chinese. They faced the double hurdle of not being able to understand Chinese recruitment advertisements, as well as a shortage of suitable positions to apply for.
Dr Anna Hui Na-na, associate professor at CityU's department of applied social sciences and a City-Youth Empowerment Project adviser, who helped conduct the survey, says that most ethnic minority students had problems catching up in their Chinese in secondary school.
"Chinese proficiency has a significant impact on them as the more competent they are, the higher the expectation they have for further studies and careers, and the better sense of satisfaction they have in life," she says.
To bolster proficiency levels, chief executive Leung Chun-ying launched a Chinese as a second language curriculum for ethnic minority students in his policy address in January.
The Education Bureau will launch the Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework in the coming school year.
But there are also concerns about other factors responsible for the group's limited academic and career achievements. Miron Kumar Bhowmik, a PhD candidate at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, is doing research on out-of-school ethnic minority youngsters and doubts the new policy will help the overall "academic and future success" of such students.
"It is not like the government is not doing enough. It has been allocating separate money and resources for schools with ethnic minority students for language purposes. But there is no concrete evidence that it has helped the future success of the students," he says.
"I think in general we are over-emphasising the issue [of language]. And in that we run the risk of losing sight of other issues.
"Addressing the Chinese language problem is important, but it is only a response in part. Many minority students in Hong Kong fail [in school], for example, because they have problems with mathematics and liberal studies. Then there are problems regarding teaching and teachers' expectations, problems of family, different kinds of hurdles that are hampering the success of ethnic minorities."
Both CityU and HKCS have called for more support for parents to help their understanding of relevant information, resources and skills in assisting their children in further studies.
They also recommended a one-stop education consultation platform in the regional education offices in different districts under the bureau to provide information seminars, inquiry hotlines and consultation services to ethnic minority parents.
The number of full-time ethnic minority students below the age of 15 in Hong Kong rose from 23,444 in 2006 to 32,800 in 2011.
A survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2012 showed that students from South Asia accounted for 3.2 per cent of primary school pupils, but only 1.1 per cent of senior secondary students, and 0.59 per cent of tertiary students.