Is the time right to revaluate Hong Kong’s ‘pressure-cooker’ style of education?

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Having collected my AS exam results, I breathed a sigh of relief as a very long year had come to a conclusion. I found myself wondering how other students my age have been faring in other countries over the past year. Hong Kong, a high density population of 7,000,000 has 3 universities in the annual Time Higher Education ranking. This is an impressive feat for a region with such a comparatively small population. The Hong Kong education system is reputed as one of the best in the world, producing a high number of students which go on to further education and high-paying jobs. However, it is all swings and roundabouts. Hong Kong’s education system has its fair number of vocal cynics and has been labelled a “pressure-cooker” style of education. This has given rise to the question of whether the benefits of this style outweigh the glaring negatives. Should the government of Hong Kong press on with this method of eschewing knowledge in replacement of test preparation?

The entry requirements to top Hong Kong universities are astronomically high, for example, a prospective A-Level student must ascertain multiple A*’s to be admitted to the University of Hong Kong. These entry requirements have inevitably led to the HK government implementing a competitive “pressure-cooker” style of education, which poses problems for students, but also for parents who have to shell out to pay for extra tuition which can be upwards of $1,000 HKD per month if their children are to have a plausible chance at reaching top universities. Culture in Hong Kong has unfortunately developed to a point of a very slender definition of success, which stipulates that academic achievement and performance in the DSE exams are related to entering a respected white collar career and thus life fulfilment. The society has seemingly developed around this centric point. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, near 76% of 524 Primary Five to Form Six pupils said they attended tutoring classes and cramming classes. Cramming classes are common in East Asia, these are classes which pupils ‘voluntarily’ attend out of school purely for passing university entrance exams. This development in mentality has flourished in the region out of the fear of being less able or successful in an increasingly competitive economy.

This pressure-style education system has debased the purpose of education by removing its soul; education should not be viewed as a simple means to an end (the end being a white-collar career in this case). It should be an experience in which real world knowledge is imparted to the student, however, as stated beforehand, increasing globalisation and focus on liberal careerism has created a universal issue. The UK education system, although far from being spotless, has a strong focus on critical thinking and analysis but also nurturing individual student interests, instead of a one and all style. It has been noted that this is a key reason why Chinese students for example attending UK universities may struggle to achieve top degrees (Source) as they lack the crucial thinking abilities that should accompany the first 14 or so years of one’s life. Instead of exploring a subject, the focus is on memorising methods and facts. This is enough to put a large proportion of children off the subject for life.

This is similar to the anti-Grammar school argument that also highlights the wealth disparity issue. Families have to contend with the issue that Hong Kong is the second most expensive place to purchase land in the world, consequently birth rate figures are some of the lowest globally, and couples that choose to have children must be competitive. Naturally this means that more affluent couples have more financial ability to spend on tutoring etc. and therefore have a perceivably unfairly advantaged. This creates inequality as the less affluent are structurally disadvantaged, and thus reinforces the class structure which the education system will continue to reproduce itself unless reform is enacted.

The fact of the matter is that mental health issues do not go unnoticed in Hong Kong, as they are intrinsic to it, attempts have been made to address the symptoms of scholastic pressure, albeit in some cases very sinister methods such as a “no suicide contract” that a student must sign if they are ever to find themselves on the rocks. This has been in response to increasing annual suicide rates amongst students at primary/secondary/tertiary schools. Measures like these have been implemented due to the limited availability of funds, but the funding issue is relatively extraneous. This is really an issue that has manifested as a result of an institutions’ chosen route and as a consequence of societal evolution, so the focus should turned to reforming the root cause: the education system to give students the much needed psychological breathing space, mental well-being has to become a priority on the Hong Kong government’s agenda.

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