In the course of just 17 days in February this year, Hong Kong has seen five students take their own lives. Just a month earlier, the city’s legislature had convened a special session to address the rising number of student suicides.
“In the classroom, I was not allowed to move, drink water, eat, go to the toilet, or talk,” said Chan Yu-ling, a fourth-grade primary school student, at the Education Bureau’s Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides. Chan’s whose parents eventually removed her from the local school system and placed her in an international school. “The teachers spent little time teaching. We spent most of our time doing mock exams,” she added.
Hong Kong’s education system has been consistently referred to as a pressure cooker. Between 2010 and 2014, Hong Kong saw an average of 23 student suicides a year, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Center for Suicide Research and Prevention. In 2016 alone, 35 students took their own lives. The spate of suicides has led the government to establish a Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides, which called for a review of the education system in November of last year.
Confucian cultures across Asia share a common thread of placing academic stress on students’ mental health. Culturally speaking, academic success is highly respected, not only for the individual student, but also their families. This has resulted in education systems centered on exams, and in many countries test scores alone can determine whether students are admitted to university.
At the same session held by the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides, secondary school history teacher and member of the Hong Kong Professional Teaching Union Cheung Siu-chung said that the suicides are “the accumulative effect of the education system… students are evaluated like stocks, and teachers are like fund managers who need to boost the stocks,” he said. “How can you expect students to not feel pressure?”
In spite of these testimonials, the Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides ruled that the education system was not a direct cause of the suicides. This was later echoed by Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim.
The score-driven culture is universally hated by parents, yet it is also something that few dare to challenge. The fear of putting their child at a disadvantage by withdrawing them from the current Basic Competency Assessment (BCA, formerly known as the TSA) curriculum means that not many parents are willing to chance their luck at challenging the current system.
On February 19, 2017, several politicians and activists from the Civil Alliance for Student Suicide Prevention demanded the government set up a high-level interdepartmental platform to look into the problem of student suicides. Calling for Ng to withdraw his statement and to step down, they directly attributed the suicides to the government’s city-wide BCA, which they said puts undue pressure on students as young as eight years old.
“It just can’t keep going like this,” said lawmaker Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung. “The government must discard the TSA and BCA. Exam stress is unbearable for our kids.”
A petition was submitted to the government calling for the formation of a high-level interdepartmental platform. The same petition was given to chief executive hopeful Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who used the issue to make a pitch for her candidacy, saying that should she win, she will pick an education secretary with heart.