In the research lab I have relatively little exposure to the academic set up here in Hong Kong. There is little communication outside of research groups so it has taken a while to get a feel for what the education system is like. I’ve managed to gather a few bits of information which may give you some insight into education in Hong Kong. Although, many people who use jobs.ac.uk will consider Hong Kong for a University based career, I feel it is useful to have an awareness of the school system so you have an idea of the experiences of the students. It is also important if you’re raising a family in Hong Kong!
Schools… where it all starts! This year it seems that many schools returned at the end of August and the summer holiday commences in July. Some schools seem to have a no homework policy whereas others give lots of homework. I know everyone has an opinion on education but based on my personal opinion I think it is a little odd that some high school age students are given no homework. From reading some resources and talking to people I have got to know, even primary school children will routinely be given two hours of homework per night.
There are many different international schools offering a UK curriculum, the international baccalaureate or other options. The fees for these vary considerably but many have good extra-curricular opportunities for the students. In terms of non-international schools, there are the government funded, privately-funded and charity type funded schools. In the New Territories (where I live) I see quite a few Christian schools which appear to be have originated from the missionaries that arrived in Hong Kong when it was established under British rule. Many wealthy families send their children over the border every day to Hong Kong to attend some of the international or private schools.
It has been confusing to try and determine the school system because I see children in school uniform on every day of the week and at all times of the day. Since the handover in 1997 there has been a gradual shift and now many schools seem to be moving towards the Chinese school qualifications and away from the UK system. This is just based on what some undergraduates have mentioned. English is taught as a second language but is mostly rote learning from a book.
Middle class families and others that can afford it put a lot of emphasis of extra classes and tutoring. School children routinely have extra tutoring or classes in the evenings or weekends (if the parents can afford it). There seems to be a competitive nature and a perception that more study makes better students. While there may be an element of truth in this, I worry that quantity is valued more highly than quality.
In the summer vacation periods many school children attend additional school courses. Some of these cover additional subjects and there are expat teachers who give the students the chance to practice conversational English. Since Hong Kong is a small place, most students still live with family while at University so cooking classes are also taught. This definitely helps the students (that can afford this extra education) but I sometimes worry about those less fortunate. Unlike the UK education system, even in school, the school does not provide books – these must be purchased by the students (i.e. by the parents). There were sensational headlines in the media this year when some key textbook publishers increased the prices by 20-35%! It is noteworthy that secondhand bookshops or charity shops do not exist in Hong Kong like in the UK! Education is an expensive business but some businesses make a lot of money out of it.
A lot of learning seems to be rote learning. Without wishing to offend, my experience of students in Hong Kong is that they seem to be spoon-fed are generally lacking in the critical thinking. I think this is not just in terms of education but also a cultural quirk. They seem to question things a lot less than we do in the UK. As a scientist this is obviously absolutely essential and it has taken considerable effort to get them to start thinking and questioning things. Even questioning why they make observations in a chemical reaction.
We are all used to undergraduates sat in the classroom and not speaking even when asked if they have questions, but I think due to the culture this is much more apparent in Hong Kong. Again, it is related to the lack of questioning but also a culture trend; one of the explanations many expats are given of why people don’t talk to us is because they are embarrassed that their English is not good enough. As a British person I am acutely aware that my Cantonese is dreadful and I try and get the students to teach me words so they should not worry! The culture of learning by real-life practice is something they seem uncomfortable with. I enjoy interacting with students and the mentoring part of my job so it sometimes saddens me that they don’t want to interact.
It seems that most Universities in Hong Kong operate using English as the main language. Here at City University of Hong Kong all courses are taught in English and the essays and exams are also in English. Students are therefore required to have a certain level of English in order to gain entry to the University. Cantonese is the main language of Hong Kong (and Southern China) but increasingly there is an emphasis on Mandarin and this is taught in schools too. From what I have heard that other Universities in Hong Kong are the same although there is the odd occasion where faculty member from mainland China did not speak English so the course was taught and examined in Mandarin.