Illustration: Craig Stephens
David Bishop
David Bishop

Hong Kong should join mainland China in embracing education reform, and reject a return to ‘normal’

  • Going back to how things used to be might be a relief but it still leaves unsolved many lingering problems in Hong Kong’s education system
  • With improved policy, a new perspective and integration of education technology, we could usher in an age where free, quality education is available to all
Across Hong Kong, classes from primary through to university are back in session. For many parents, administrators and students at all levels, one education goal has been paramount: get back to the way things used to be.

But it is worth taking time to think about whether returning to “normal” is the ideal goal. For all its challenges, Covid-19 has provided an unprecedented opportunity to rethink and reshape our education system, and we should not squander it.

Although education has been called the great equaliser, the pandemic has clearly illuminated the disparity in Hong Kong. The unplanned shift to online learning last year affected students at all levels, but especially many of the more than 181,000 disadvantaged children in the city who had trouble accessing the tools necessary to keep up.

A survey found that more than 200,000 Hong Kong households do not have a personal computer – only 33.9 per cent of households with a monthly income of less than HK$10,000 (US$1,300) have one, for example. Conversely, the figure is 96.5 per cent for households with a monthly income of more than HK$50,000.

But even when access to hardware was not a problem, internet connections were often too unstable to support streaming videos. A staggering 65 per cent of Hong Kong students had to study on their phone last year. Many had to rely on free internet from businesses such as McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, risking infection and having their lessons disrupted when the 30-minute free Wi-fi access ended.


Covid-19: Hong Kong’s needy pupils sidelined by online learning one year since class suspension

Covid-19: Hong Kong’s needy pupils sidelined by online learning one year since class suspension
If left unmitigated, the technology divide will further exacerbate the wealth gap in Hong Kong, which is the widest in four decades.
Mainland China is taking the opportunity to make substantial changes. This year, Chinese authorities released a series of reforms aimed at reducing education inequality, improving well-being and limiting off-campus tutoring for children undergoing compulsory education.

To protect children’s mental and physical health, the new regulations ban written exams for pupils aged 6 and 7, and pupils in other years of compulsory education will only have to take examinations once a term. Written homework has been banned for first- and second-graders, and limited for junior high students to no more than 1.5 hours per night.

Teachers on the mainland will be required to rotate schools every six years to ensure top talent is evenly spread among schools. Also, schools are banned from setting up priority classes for gifted students.


Crackdown on private tutoring leaves industry, students and parents drawing a blank

Crackdown on private tutoring leaves industry, students and parents drawing a blank
Authorities also took aim at China’s tutoring industry, banning for-profit companies from tutoring in core curriculum subjects. All private tutoring firms must now register as non-profit organisations, limit online tutoring classes to no more than 30 minutes and end their last lesson by 9pm.

While imperfect, the premise behind these changes makes sense. Compulsory education should not overburden children, be excessively costly for families or necessitate hours of additional study in tutorial centres just to get by.

Hong Kong’s education system similarly prioritises academic achievement over practical skills and student well-being. The shadow education industry in the city generated HK$4.3 billion in 2015-16, with a single tutor rejecting an offer of an HK$85 million salary in the “tutor wars”. Private school tuition can cost more than HK$200,000 per year.

But even though there are serious challenges, the exciting reality is that these are some of the most fixable in the history of public education. With a combination of improved policy, a change in perspective and intelligent integration of useful education technology, we could usher in a golden age for education where free, quality education is available to everyone.


How technology is improving education in rural China

How technology is improving education in rural China
First, we need to make sure not to jettison all the great education technology (edtech) that has been developed and utilised during the pandemic. As bad as things seemed last year, a recent study found that the happiness level of Hong Kong primary and secondary students has reached a seven-year high, thanks in part to more leisure time while learning online at home.

When done right, edtech can enable student autonomy through self-paced learning while enhancing interactive and collaborative learning in class. The key is to ensure students have equitable access to technology while educators and parents have the support they need.

Moreover, we need to increase support to Hong Kong’s growing edtech industry, which features start-ups such as Weava Tools and Snapask, which are helping students around the world in their studies. The government also needs to review and rectify education policy based on changing demographics in the city, including low birth rates and the increase in the ethnic minority population.
As a multicultural city, Hong Kong is doing a poor job of supporting non-Chinese-speaking students and in-class diversity. Surveys found that only 38 per cent of teachers feel confident teaching Chinese to non-Chinese speakers. Ethnic minority students only understand 70 per cent of what is taught in class, which could partly explain their low university enrolment rate, at just 1.4 per cent in 2016-17.
Again, there are NGOs helping to bridge the gap, such as EmpowerU and Integrated Brilliant Education, but our goal should be to ensure that all students’ needs are being met regardless of ethnicity or wealth.

With all the technology and resources available, why not aspire to a society that has truly equal access to education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels? Let’s take this opportunity to dream bigger and make a plan that serves all Hongkongers for decades to come.

David Bishop is a principal lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong