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Hong Kong’s pressure-cooker education system is producing ‘monster parents’

Alice Wu says parents in the city are often criticised for putting pressure on their children but the stress that the adults themselves are under receives little attention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 6:10pm

When developers and investors are looking at the education sector as a growing alternative source of income, we know something is terribly wrong. Education is an investment in our children, or as governments around the world have long claimed – an investment in our future.

And, if we consider why Hong Kong’s youth are so angry, the answer really is a no-brainer. 

Consider how much we put them through for their education: all the grief, tears, pressure and demands. The children lose their childhoods, parents don’t get to live much, either, slaving away to make enough money to fund their children’s “education needs”, just so that, if the kids are “lucky” – and, by that, I mean “lucky” to have been able to secure a university degree – they get to deal with the crushing disappointments of reality.

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Job prospects aren’t great. And let’s not forget that they’re often reminded by experts, studies and surveys that their education has failed to prepare them for the workplace. Homes are unaffordable. Relationships with parents aren’t great – think of all the years of toiling over never-ending exams and a lifetime of stressing over school placements. The world isn’t their oyster.

Parents trade years of their own quality of life in the hope of giving their children a better chance

The only solace is that they’re not the only ones. The shocking 2017 report confirmed that Hong Kong parents are outspending everyone else in the world: with more than HK$1 million spent on their children’s education from primary school to university, we’re talking around three times the global average. The lengths to which Hong Kong parents go for their children’s fingers-crossed, no-promises future explains why they were, are and will continue to be exploited. 

Recently, a report on a study by the Hok Yau Club on pupils taking the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam called parents pushy for putting pressure on their children even though exam stress levels hit an all-time low this year. While parents are blamed for a lot of things, we often forget, or simply refuse, to acknowledge the enormous pressure they are also under. 

Confessions of a DSE high-scorer: Hong Kong’s education system must nurture all, not the few

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Our city’s very lucrative shadow education industry is not only a sad fact of life for our sleep-deprived pupils who are already overwhelmed with homework. It’s more than just a bank-breaker for the 88 per cent of Hong Kong parents who have the means to spend money on private tuition. These parents trade years of their own quality of life in the hope of giving their children a better chance. 

Monster parents”, like our overstressed and depressed students, are the products of our education system, or to be more precise, an education system that has been failing students and parents. If students are taught and properly prepared for say, the DSE, then there would be no need for the extra private tuition. Rock-star tutors would not be engaging in the very pricey competition over who could better predict DSE questions. And, of course, here lies that most sinister of all problems: education has become a luxury product, and hence, the government is perpetuating intergenerational poverty.

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For this year’s Chinese reading exam, 12 questions on the essay “Reasons for Being Lonely” by renowned Taiwanese author Lin Tai-man make up 70 per cent of the points allotted. The problem is: the author was unable to answer the examiners’ questions about her own work. Lin frankly admitted on social media that she doesn’t know how to answer many of them and would probably have just scraped through the exam herself. With every passing year, I’m more convinced that these DSE questions are ways for examiners to engage in a government-sanctioned form of hazing – cruelly baiting pupils, educators, tutors and parents. 

Yes, this is all old news. These are perpetual problems that the government has ignored, year after year. And yet, to add insult to injury, officials and bureaucrats are still scratching their heads as to why there is widespread social disaffection.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA