Exodus hits universities as students, professors leave

The number of students who quit their studies at Hong Kong’s eight government-funded universities in the last academic year jumped by a record 24% over the year before, official figures show, while separate figures showed around 290 academic staff left the eight public universities in the past year. This is far higher than the numbers reaching retirement age.

Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC), which distributes government money to public higher education institutions, this month revealed the latest figures for the number of students who discontinued their studies in the 2020-21 academic year. A total of 2,212 students, or 2.6% of about 85,000 full-time undergraduates, left university midway through their degree programme, up sharply from the 1,779, or 2.1% of the total, recorded the year before.

The number of departures from universities is the highest since 2003 – the earliest year for which the figures are available. The dropout rate has increased since the introduction of the National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong in July 2020, but large numbers also dropped out due to the coronavirus pandemic when universities closed and classes were shifted online.

Hong Kong has seen a major exodus, mainly of professionals following the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019 and the introduction of the National Security Law in July 2020, which has led to a particularly high dropout rate from schools as families emigrate.

But academics noted that it was more unusual for university undergraduates to give up a degree course after a year or more of study.

The Hong Kong government revealed that more than 89,000 residents had left Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.4 million, in the 12 months since the imposition of the security law – a 60-year high.

Some of the first to leave Hong Kong as part of the latest exodus in 2020 and 2021 were pro-democracy student activists, student union leaders and lawmakers fleeing persecution.

In one case Hong Kong prosecutors asked a court to proceed with the trial of student Wong Ting Tao in her absence, after she jumped bail and fled the city following her arrest during a November 2019 anti-government protest at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), but trial in absentia has so far been denied by the courts.

Leaving to take advantage of new visa policies

But for many students, university closures in 2019 due to large-scale street protests, and then closures in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, meant it was easier to start degrees afresh overseas.

Special visa policies for Hong Kong people brought in by the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia, in the past two years, also meant leaving for an overseas degree in order to benefit from new ‘stay-on’ lifeboat policies for Hong Kongers made it worthwhile for students to give up on already-started degrees, explained one academic at CUHK, on condition of anonymity.

“Some students and their families feared the generous policies announced by some Western countries might be temporary and it would be better to leave before the doors shut,” he said.

A record number of Hong Kong people chose to study in Canada in 2021 – a three-fold jump from 2020. Some 4,915 Hong Kong people obtained study permits from Canada between January and September 2021 after Canada announced new immigration pathways in February 2021 for those who complete post-secondary education at designated Canadian institutions, with the offer remaining in effect until August 2026.

“Canada has said the policy could be revoked at any time, which helps to explain the rush by Hong Kongers to start their studies now,” according to one immigration consultant, particularly as Canada’s borders remained open during the pandemic.

Of those who dropped out from Hong Kong’s universities, many were from its most prestigious institutions. Hong Kong University (HKU), one of the top-ranked universities in Asia, lost the most students – 445 (2.6%) dropped out – a 30% increase compared with 343 discontinuing their studies in 2019-20. CUHK, another highly ranked university, saw 398 students (2.3%) leave, up from 305 (1.7%) the year before.

The figure at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, along with CUHK, the scene of some of the fiercest campus clashes in 2019, which led to many of its students facing police charges, was 2.3% or a loss of 346 students, up from 2.2% – 329 dropouts the year before,

An HKU spokesperson said students left for a variety of reasons including failing to attain satisfactory academic results and said the percentage of students leaving HKU is about the same as other universities. HKU will provide assistance for students with learning difficulties.

But HKU also lost 31 academic staff during 2020-21, up 25% from 2019-20, according to separate UGC figures released in January.

The pandemic drives student dropout rate in Asia

These latest student dropout figures follow a previous high rate for the 2019-20 academic year which saw a 15% dropout rate compared with the year before that, and despite schemes launched by some of Hong Kong’s top universities to assist students facing hardship due to the pandemic.

Other countries in East Asia have seen university dropout numbers rise but some, like Singapore, saw fewer leave mid-degree, and even recorded extra numbers as some universities increased places to absorb large numbers of Singaporean students unable to travel abroad to take up exchanges or other places in overseas universities.

Japan recorded 11,852 dropouts from universities and colleges between April and August 2021, and 12,322 in 2020 overall, according to official figures. But this is a tiny proportion of the 2.92 million students enrolled in Japanese universities overall – less than 0.4% compared to Hong Kong universities losing 2.5% of undergraduates before they completed their degrees.

South Korea saw mainly temporary deferrals due to discontent over the quality of online teaching, as well as dropouts due to economic hardship brought on by the pandemic.

Combating the dropout rate

Overall emigration from Hong Kong has impacted all sectors. Nearly 2,000 civil servants quit working for the Hong Kong government in 2020-21, according to the latest figures, the highest in at least 15 years. Around 1,000 high school teachers left in 2021, almost double the previous two years combined, according to the Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools.

But it is most noticeable in the education sector where 19,300 pupils withdrew from Hong Kong schools in 2020-21, according to figures from the Hong Kong Education Bureau, with some classes having to merge.

“Hong Kong is a free society,” said Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Kevin Yeung in July last year.

“Of course there are people leaving Hong Kong. They are free to make these choices. In terms of the changes in the number of students, we’ve been staying in contact with schools. If the changes are long-term and structural, we will think of long-term solutions.”

Concerned about the impact on schools including the most sought after and academic schools in Hong Kong which feed into its best universities, HKU last year announced generous scholarships for its October 2021 intake, worth at least HK$50,000 (US$6,400) to each student achieving a score in their school leaving exam within the top 1% of the cohort, and with no cap on the number of scholarships available.

HKU’s business faculty announced that students who attain the top grade in six subjects could receive a scholarship worth HK$250,000 (US$32,000).

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.

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