Wasted years for mainland students

The feelings elicited by looking back at the stories published about mainland students in The Standard between November 2019 and last May are complicated.

In “Unis pick up the pieces,” the student whose undergraduate graduation ceremony was canceled due to the social unrest completed her postgraduate studies in 2020 and has still not had in-person graduation ceremonies for either of her degrees.

Another student who was forced to move to the nearest city across the border to continue her interrupted classes during the first semester hardly went back to campus for the rest of her postgraduate school studies.

In “HK still a draw for mainlanders,” the student who chose to study in Hong Kong because the pandemic was better controlled here than in the UK arrived early last month, toward the end of the semester.

Had it not been for the fact that her visa was about to expire, she had planned to attend classes remotely in the mainland while observing the pandemic situation in Hong Kong, as the school had not yet fully resumed face-to-face teaching.

Now, she has given up hope of returning home for the Lunar New Year.

For mainlanders in Hong Kong who are in similar situations spanning the classes of 2019 to 2021, regardless of whether they ever had ambitions to develop their career in the city, the past year and a half have been filled with regret.

Initially hoping for a quick end to the social unrest, little did they know that the Covid-19 outbreak and its impact would last for a full year and beyond.

Benjamin Wu, a recent graduate of Hong Kong Baptist University, didn’t return to the SAR like most of his classmates, but continued his second semester remotely after the last Lunar New Year in January. Having tried to find a job in Hong Kong, he said his most immediate reason for giving up is that there has been no positive trend here in controlling the pandemic.

“Generally speaking, the Greater Bay Area offers more job opportunities,” Wu, who is now based in Shenzhen as a public relations associate, said, adding that similar companies in Hong Kong haven’t seen as many job vacancies.

Although his salary is not as high as that of his colleagues in the Hong Kong office, Wu said the money he makes is enough to live comfortably in Shenzhen given the different costs of living. The local government also offers preferential policies for overseas graduates, such as cash subsidies ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 yuan (HK$17,780 to HK$35,570), lower apartment rents and tax exemptions when buying cars.

Wu is “lucky” to have had at least some experience living in Hong Kong compared to Jane Deng, a postgraduate student studying a one-year program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who will graduate this year, but hasn’t come to Hong Kong so far. Deng said the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong has left her “negative” and “irritable.”

“The mainland can control the pandemic, so can Hong Kong,” Wu said. She has been waiting for the school to resume face-to-face classes with this mentality. But when the school delayed class resumptions repeatedly and ultimately announced that online teaching would continue for the whole semester, her spirits were left “completely dead.”

Whether or not face-to-face classes resume next semester, she plans to visit Hong Kong after the Lunar New Year for a few months of “in-depth travel.”

Apart from the difference between imagination and reality with regard to studying abroad and the Hong Kong government’s anti-epidemic measures, which made her feel helpless, Deng was most concerned about whether the expensive online courses would give her an advantage in the job market.

“Compared to the three-year programs in the mainland and the two-year programs in the United States, the one-year postgraduate programs in Hong Kong have faced questions about their merits by the mainland job market,” she said. “If online teaching is done year-round, I don’t know what doubts I will encounter when I look for a job.”

For Agnes Yang, a graduate with the class of 2019 at HKBU who worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, the problems brought about by her two years in the city are more complicated.

As a Cantonese speaker, Yang believes the Hong Kong job market offers fewer opportunities for mainlanders despite there being no language barrier. “Due to our identity, especially concerning the uncertainty in society, mainlanders need to consider the company’s political stance and whether working in this company will affect our future careers in the mainland,” she said. In this sense, she feels relieved, as she’s now looking for a new job in Guangzhou.

“I had considered the possibility of mainland companies having doubts about my Hong Kong academic and work experience, but what surprised me was that each of the companies I interviewed at told me that they were now very cautious about hiring people from Hong Kong,” she said. “They added that I was being considered because I had worked in pro-establishment media.”

Growing up with a rosy view of Hong Kong, Yang said she felt disappointed, especially when violence reached a peak during the unrest in October and November of 2019. “I carried my toiletries every day then, because I didn’t know whether I would be able to go home after I got off work at 11pm or whether I would need to find a hotel to rest.”

Yang hasn’t returned to Guangzhou for a year, as she was faced with a mandatory 14-day quarantine for entering the mainland from Hong Kong. Covid-19 was the final straw that cemented her choice to leave Hong Kong.

Political movements can be nullified as people cross the Shenzhen River and temporarily forget what happened in the city, but the pandemic has left people with nowhere to hide, she said, adding that the SAR government’s indecisive and rigorous anti-epidemic measures have left the public feeling very insecure.

So is Hong Kong still a draw for mainlanders? For current and future mainland students, the value of a degree from a Hong Kong university in the mainland job market is still up for debate.

For Yang, the high living costs, mismatched wages, unfriendly social environment and poor pandemic situation have gradually made her lose confidence in life in the city. “As someone who was born in [one of] China’s super first-tier cities, I already have a big advantage in the mainland, so permanent Hong Kong residency, which takes seven years to achieve, is less appealing to me,” she said.

(This article was published at The Standard on January 5, 2021: Education: Wasted years for mainland students )

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