Many who have arrived on the British National Overseas visa scheme cite integration issues in British schools
By Amelia Loi for RFA Mandarin
February 23, 2023
Hong Kongers in the United Kingdom march to support Hong Kong journalists and protest the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.
A group representing Hongkongers in the United Kingdom has called on the government to slash university tuition fees for holders of the British National Overseas passport and visa scheme, which offers a pathway to citizenship to people fleeing a political crackdown under a draconian security law.
The advocacy group Hongkongers in Britain cited a recent survey saying that the majority of university age young people taking up the government's offer probably can't afford to pay tuition at the rate paid by international students, which is often several times higher than the rate charged to domestic students.
The survey found that 80% of full-time or part-time students were under a large or very large amount of pressure to foot enormous university bills, while 58.9% of young adults said they "probably couldn't or definitely can't afford" to pay the international rate.
More than 90 percent called on the government to offer low-interest loans to BNO visa-holders studying in British universities, while more than 55% called on the government to allow them to pay local rates, Hongkongers in Britain said at a recent news conference presenting the survey of Hongkongers' educational needs.
"The government must consider solving the home and international fees issue by adjusting the current policy to avoid the loss of education opportunities among the BN(O) visa holders," the group said.
Two years after the British government announced a citizenship pathway for Hong Kong holders of the colonial-era British National Overseas passport, some 144,500 people have emigrated to the United Kingdom on its BNO visa scheme since it was launched in 2021, prompting retaliation from Beijing.
But around 30% of the 140,000 people who have taken advantage of the BNO route so far said they are still struggling to make a new life in the country after fleeing political repression at home.
Younger kids having trouble integrating
In the educational needs survey, parents of younger students cited language barriers and lack of social integration as key issues for children in British schools.
Only 52.2% parents felt that they had sufficient channels through which to communicate with their kids' school about their educational needs, meaning that 47.8% of parents felt there were insufficient channels of communication, the research found.
Nearly 60% of parents whose children have special educational needs said those needs hadn't been accommodated by schools, while only two-thirds of respondents said schools had done enough to ensure the integration of newly arrived immigrant children.
Social integration remained slow, even for young children, with only 36.5% of parents reporting that their firstborn had received a birthday party invitation from a classmate by the end of 2022.
Less than 40% of students said they sometimes or often attend social activities with local classmates, while they reported having made few friends, with a median reported number of four.
More than 60% said language was proving to be a barrier to integration, with more than 40% citing cultural differences, and nearly 35% citing traveling time as the main barrier to participation.
Hongkongers in Britain recommended that the government, local authorities, and schools recruit bilingual assistants who speak the Hong Kong version of Cantonese and who are familiar with the city's unique culture.
In June 2022, 11 cross-party members of Parliament, academics and campaigners petitioned the British government to change the status of British National Overseas visa-holders, but to no avail.
Survey supervisor Julian Chan said previous requests to change the fee status of Hongkongers to "home student" had fallen on deaf ears despite reaching the ministerial level.
"This new report provides new evidence and will hopefully be a step forward," Chan said. "But we must also gather other groups and individuals to continue to raise awareness of this issue, and restart discussions with different policy-makers."
Hongkongers in Britain Director Jason Chow said he hoped the new report would help schools and local authorities pay more attention to the specific needs of newly arrived Hongkongers, including providing more opportunity to keep up their Cantonese language skills.
"There is a Mandarin Excellence Program ... which is up for review next year," Chow said. "We will be suggesting to the government that this program is extended to include Cantonese."
"Also, councils and schools need to do more to inform parents more clearly about how their children can get help with special educational needs," he said.
Currently, it is possible to take a General Certificate of Secondary Education at the age of 16 in Chinese, but the type of Chinese taught in the exams is usually Mandarin, and the written aspects of the exam use the simplified characters taught in mainland Chinese schools, not the traditional characters learned by pupils in Hong Kong.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.