HK will pay the price for mistreating contract teachers

July 24, 2015 11:29
The education reform has led to the hiring of low-paid contract teachers to fill school vacancies. Photo: Internet

A young contract secondary school teacher who had three master’s degrees committed suicide last week. His death has drawn public attention to the pay and career prospects of contract teachers.

I am deeply sorry for what happened to that young teacher and my heart goes out to his family. What he had gone through at work is typical of the kind of woes most contract teachers are facing these days.

For a long time, the number of teachers our public and subsidized schools can hire is regulated by the government according to the actual needs of schools.

However, the education reform that has been underway since the handover has sharply increased the demand for teachers, and in order to meet that demand, the Education Bureau began to provide schools with temporary allowances so that they can hire more teachers to share the extra workloads.

Since the allowance is of a temporary nature and has a time limit, most schools can only hire extra teachers on short-term contracts.

As workloads continue to increase amid the growing demands of the education reform, schools have to hire more and more contract teachers.

Many of these contract teachers, who have been hired for a duration of five to 10 years, are still unable to get permanent contracts. According to figures from the Education Bureau, contract teachers currently account for 10 to 15 percent of all the teachers in Hong Kong.

The problem is, even though there isn’t any difference in the work of contract teachers and permanent teachers, contract teachers are usually given much lower pay and inferior employment benefits and welfare.

Although contract teachers are practically doing the same job and fulfilling the same role as permanent teachers, the Education Bureau refuses to officially recognize their role and incorporate them into the standard manning quotas for teachers.

The results of a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union between March and April this year suggest that the majority of contract teachers share four common characteristics.

1. They are young, with 85 percent of them under the age of 35, while almost 80 percent of teaching assistants are aged under 30.

2. They are mostly highly educated, with 36 percent having master’s degrees or above.

3. They often change their jobs frequently, with 67 percent having taught in more than two schools.

4. Their jobs are unstable, with 67 percent having no idea whether they will get their contracts renewed in September this year, while only 2 percent are likely to be offered a permanent contract.

Given that their jobs are so unstable with little prospects and they are paid and treated unfairly, many young contract teachers have become so disgruntled that they leave their teaching positions and find other jobs to make ends meet.

As a result, our education sector has lost many energetic, experienced and talented professionals over the years.

Some contract teachers told me that apart from struggling to keep their jobs, what bothers them most about being a contract teacher is that there are little career prospects.

For example, a contract teacher whose performance at work had been praised by his immediate superior was denied promotion by the school board just because he was a contract teacher.

Besides, many contract teachers simply don’t have enough time to find out the abilities and learning needs of their students because most of them are only offered a one-year contract.

The fact that the Education Bureau has failed to make long-term commitment of resources to education and continued to hire low-paid contract teachers to fill the vacancies in our schools has taken its toll on the quality of our education.

In the end, our society will pay a heavy price if our government fails to redress the inequalities faced by contract teachers and stop the brain drain in our education sector.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative Council member from the education sector