Can Hong Kong’s education prevent “involution”?
Authors: Victor Kwok, Head of Education & Youth, and Nicole Lau, Assistant Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation
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In recent years, the term “involution” has become a buzzword, used to capture the discontent experienced by young people, referring to excessive and vicious competition as well as persistent economic or social problems. Last year, “involution” was listed as one of the top ten buzzwords in Mainland China. In fact, involution is not a challenge unique to young people in the Mainland, as Hong Kong faces similar issues in its education system and the prospects of its younger generation.
As our society evolves and the education level of our population rises, more and more Hong Kong students are given university degrees. This year, Hong Kong’s degree-level participation rate has reached 54%, higher than the average figure of the International Economic and Trade Organisations. If sub-degree qualifications are added to the equation, the rate is over 80%, far exceeding the 60% target at the beginning of Hong Kong’s handover. It is fair to say that Hong Kong’s higher education is no longer reserved for the social elite.
As graduates’ number increases, competition intensifies, which naturally exacerbates inequality. Unfortunately, the education system is yet to adapt. Academic performance is still the holy grail for students, but the narrow path of academic progression cannot accommodate all those who aspire to a university degree. This has meant a “race to the bottom” for many teachers, parents, and students in secondary school, who are always seeking shortcuts for achieving higher scores. Teachers are drilling the classes in exam techniques; private tutors are charging extortionate prices; even parents have joined the rat race, some queuing overnight to sign their children up for the courses aiming for a “5*” or “5**” in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE).
What followed was the inflation and the devaluation of degrees. Over the past 20 years, the earnings of university graduates have declined rather than improved. The median of their starting salary has fallen from HK$15,457 in 1997 to HK$14,395 in 2020. These are undoubtedly warning signs for the future of our society, leading us to question the single standard we impose in promoting social development. Has our education system fallen into the trap of involution, overstressing academic competition and neglecting the fundamental task of cultivating upstanding citizens?
Our Government, who designs and implements education policies in Hong Kong, along with students’ parents, should re-examine the value and role of our education. We must rethink how we can enable students to apply their knowledge and skills.
Obviously, not every student is suited for the conventional academic path, so there is a demand among young people for more diverse options and the Government should start to train up talents for different industries from as early as secondary school. In countries like Germany and the UK, around 50% of high school students are enrolled in alternative programmes such as vocational training, apprenticeship or dual education. Meanwhile, for tertiary education, countries such as Finland, Germany and Singapore offer degrees that combine theory and practice via applied universities, which help build talent pools for high-growth industries. In comparison, only about 6% of secondary school students in Hong Kong take applied learning subjects (ApL).
To prevent the involution of Hong Kong’s education system, we can also look to China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, which aims to promote vocational education and encourage collaboration between leading companies and universities in offering vocational training. The Government should strive to bridge the gap between the industry and academia by facilitating their joint efforts to provide progression pathways beyond the traditional academic route.
The involution of education will stifle young people’s aspiration to learn and chip away at their competitive edge. Moving forward, Hong Kong must bring different stakeholders together, to create more diverse and personalised alternatives for students to further their studies and to liberate them from an involuted education system.