Contract teachers face lower pay and more uncertainty
By Tiff Chan & Teenie Ho
A Tai Po secondary school’s annual sports day has ended and most students have already left the premises except for a few who have stayed behind to chat next to the basketball court. Yam Ka-wing, their economics teacher is surprised to see them there and with a broad smile walks over to talk with them.
The 26-year-old holds a business degree and is the school’s only economics teacher. Despite a heavy workload, she enjoys her job and has a good rapport with her students. But she is not certain that she wants to or will be able to continue teaching at the school once her contract ends.
Since schools began to hire contract teachers like Yam in 2000, around 15 per cent of teachers in primary schools and 10 per cent of teachers in secondary schools have been hired on annual contract terms. Most of them are fresh or recent university graduates with a teaching degree or graduates who have taken the Postgraduate Diploma in Education. Many complain they are underpaid, overworked and lack job security – leading to fears about teaching quality and the future of the teaching profession.
Schools began to hire contract teachers after the Education Bureau (EDB) started giving out annual one-off cash grants to schools. Fung Wai-wah, the president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) says schools enjoy a high degree of freedom on how they use the grants.
Fung says the EDB introduced the grants after pressure from teachers to increase the number of permanent teachers to deal with the extra workload arising from special educational needs students, the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum and life-planning education. The government refused to increase the headcount for permanent teachers, citing a drop in the number of school-aged children but agreed to the grants.
He says most of the schools use the money to hire staff such as contract teachers, associate teachers and teaching assistants to expand their teaching team and reduce the workload of permanent teachers.
The amount schools get every year fluctuates according to how many students there are. Government statistics show the number of secondary students dropped by 21 per cent in the past six years. If the EDB reduces the level of subsidy in a given school, its contract teachers may not be able to renew their contracts in the coming academic year. On the other hand, Fung points out that it is hard to fire a permanent teacher even if they perform badly.
Compared to contract teachers, permanent teachers enjoy job stability and their continued employment makes for a more stable teaching team in the school. The EDB has a strict quota on the number of permanent teachers a school can hire based on the ratio of two teachers for every class in a given year. They also have a predictable mechanism for pay increases.
However, there is no such mechanism for contract teachers whose salaries are decided by the schools. “According to the pay scale, the starting salary of a permanent teacher can be around HK$20,000 a month, but, in reality, fresh graduate contract teachers can only get half of that,” says Fung who describes it as a form of exploitation that the HKPTU cannot accept.
Steven Leung, a 25-year-old fresh graduate who works as a contract associate teacher in an aided secondary school says it is unfair that he has a lower starting salary than a permanent teacher. He has to teach 22 English lessons a week including the NSS curriculum and is also responsible for extra-curricular activities and counselling students. “My workload is not much different to that of a permanent teacher,” he says.
Although Leung is confident about his abilities at work, he failed to negotiate a higher salary. He thinks this is because his school does not have enough in grant money to pay him according to the master pay scale. “As the funding is not enough, I think my school would like to use a lower wage to hire more assistant teachers to share the workload of my colleagues,” he says.
Leung is a journalism graduate and never expected to be teaching until he was approached by a teacher from his old school who asked for his help at short notice. “The original assistant teacher found a job with a higher salary in another school, so he resigned at the end of August,” he says. “They really needed a teacher because school was going to start soon.”
After working in the school for a month, Leung has some insight into why his predecessor left. He believes the school’s high staff turnover rate is due to the heavy workload and low salaries of contract staff. He says the work is tough, especially as student discipline and academic results at the school are rather poor. He has resolved to leave as soon as he finds a better job, whether or not it is in teaching. For Leung, income and future prospects are important – being a contract teacher does not have a promising future.
Although many contract teachers and Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union, the HKPTU, say the contract system is unfair and want the government to introduce more permanent posts, Chris Chiu, a 30-year-old Liberal Studies teacher in a direct subsidy scheme secondary school (DSS) does not see the contract system as a problem. For Chiu, the problem is that schools have both contract teachers and permanent teachers, which leads to conflicts and unfairness.
Chiu has taught at direct subsidy schools for seven years. Unlike in government funded schools, he says, all the staff in his school, including the principal, is hired on a contract basis. “Everyone in this school is hired under the contract system, so it is fairer [than government funded schools]. Our code of conduct is strong and staff morale is good,” he says.
Even if he had the chance to get a permanent position in a government funded school, Chiu would prefer to work in a DSS. Instead of doing away with contract teaching positions, he thinks the EDB should improve the contract system and phase out permanent teacher quotas. “Hiring teachers permanently is an old-fashioned and cost-ineffective system,” he says.
Chiu says the government should ask government funded schools to follow the lead of DSS schools in offering contracts of up to five years. “The contract duration can be one year for probation but, after that, schools should give a longer contract like three to five years,” he says, “It is mentally tiring and time-consuming to look for new jobs every year.”
However, Ip Kin-yuen, the legislative councillor for the education functional constituency and vice-president of the HKPTU, says education is not a business and schools’ teaching teams should not undergo constant change. He wants the government to expand the quotas for permanent teachers instead of reducing them. The original aim of the permanent teachers’ system, he adds, was to preserve stability and continuity; contracts were only meant to meet short-term needs. Ip says many schools have twisted the meaning of the contract system, leading to instability and to the detriment of teaching quality.
The HKPTU warns that the government may reduce the permanent teachers’ quota because of a drop in the number of secondary students in the coming two to three years. This will have a knock-on effect on job prospects for those joining the profession.
Ip says the government and the University Grants Committee should revise the number of students accepted onto teaching degree and master programmes each year in order to prevent a surplus of teachers.
The Hong Kong Prospective Teachers’ Association (HKPTA) found the number of job advertisements for teaching jobs decreased by 30 per cent this year compared to last year, but the number of graduates is unchanged.
Even if the government did cut the number of places for student teachers, this would not help 22-year-old Chan Tsz-chung, a final-year Bachelor of Education (Liberal Studies) student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chan says liberal studies teachers may find it even more difficult to find a teaching job. “Liberal Studies does not require teachers with professional knowledge to teach, so schools usually find permanent teachers to teach, instead of us,” he says.
As a result, Chan says most of his peers worry about whether they can find a job when they graduate. To increase their chance of being employed, many will minor in another secondary school subject, such as history or geography, so that they can teach two subjects to increase their competitiveness.
However, Chan is keen to teach and is optimistic he will find a job as experience tells him that 70 per cent of his seniors managed to find teaching jobs. But whether they can renew their contracts after the first and subsequent years is not guaranteed. Many have to find a new school after their first year.
The schools’ flexibility in hiring contract teachers means there may be more job opportunities for new teachers but there is no job security. Chan says he would like to find a stable teaching job but, “I cannot foresee when I can get a permanent offer.”
Even when their contracts are renewed, contract teachers often find themselves struggling between a wish to continue serving their students and looking for a stable permanent job with better conditions.
Yam Ka-wing, the economics teacher from a Tai Po subsidised school is not sure if she would accept a permanent offer at another school. She has built up mutual trust with her students and fears that it would take them time to adapt to a new teacher, especially for Form Six students who will soon take public examinations.
“I am conflicted,” she says. “My students want me to stay and I want to help them. But from a contract teacher’s point of view, I do really hope to get a permanent offer.”
Edited by Godric Leung