Expat teachers balk at Hong Kong’s quarantine strictures

A fifth of Hong Kong’s international schools are struggling to hire teachers just days before the start of the new academic year, as analysts and staff warn that the city’s strict Covid-19 quarantine regime is making recruitment “extremely difficult”.

Not even the offer of higher wages has been enough to attract teachers to the Chinese territory, which has had to follow a version of Beijing’s contentious zero-Covid policy.

“The salaries are already at the top end,” said Ruth Benny, a Hong Kong education specialist at consultancy Top Schools. “There is not much more most schools can do. They need to be a bit more creative about incentives. It is tricky.”

There are about 50 international schools in the city but at least 10 institutions were still hiring teachers as of this week, a Financial Times analysis of job advertisements found. Some schools are looking for headteachers and associate heads.

International schools, which are typically attended by expatriate children, charge up to HK$274,000 (US$35,000) at secondary level per year.

Like other businesses in the city, international schools have been buffeted by severe Covid restrictions and lengthy quarantine for incoming travellers. Schools have also had to cope with the introduction of a sweeping national security law that affects the school curriculum. This has led to an exodus of staff with many companies struggling to attract talent.

Benny said the difficulties of hiring new teachers were “unprecedented”, while Belinda Greer, chief executive of Hong Kong’s largest international school group, the English Schools Foundation, told the FT turnover was 14 per cent in the last academic year. This was “significantly higher” than the previous year, she said.

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A senior member of staff at an international school that has lost many teachers added that a large number of pupils had also left, and that fewer students were arriving from overseas.

Hong Kong needs to drop the quarantine measures and demonstrate its interest in being an international business centre,” he said.

This week, the city eased quarantine at designated hotels from seven days to three, followed by four days of home quarantine.

But a teacher from another international school that was still hiring this month said: “If the quarantine does not go to zero, I suspect that a lot more teachers will leave [by the end] of this year as well. Many schools are already hiring less experienced teachers.”

A family departing Hong Kong’s international airport
Covid-19 restrictions, coupled with the imposition of a tough security law, have prompted many expats to leave Hong Kong © Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

And it is not just international schools that are struggling. Teachers from local schools have been asked to poach students from rival institutions, wooing them with perks such as free iPads.

More than 25,000 pupils withdrew from local and international schools over the past year, many of them from higher-income districts, official data showed. More than 4,000 teachers resigned in the last academic year, up 70 per cent from the year before.

At least six local schools were expected to close over the next five years, education officials said.

While conceding that the sheer number of students and teachers leaving Hong Kong posed challenges, education minister Christine Choi insisted that it “does not necessarily mean they are unhappy with the [city’s] education system”.

Tang Fei, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and a secondary school head, suggested Hong Kong should consider bringing in more pupils from mainland China and south-east Asia to stabilise the student population.

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As companies shifted staff from Hong Kong to other places in the region such as Singapore, the Asian financial hub recorded a 1.4 per cent contraction in its gross domestic product in the second quarter of this year. That followed a 3.9 per cent decline in the first three months of 2022.