Stepping Up the Working Game – Hong Kong College Students Strive to Work

     Daniel Chan, a senior student at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), earns more than HK$16,000 a month, which is HK$1,900 more than the statutory minimum wage of Hong Kong.

     Waking up at 7:15 a.m. at home in Cheung Sha Wan, he arrives at HKU around 8:30 a.m. to kick off his usual day. As an urban studies student, architectural projects often force him to stay in the 24-hour-opening studio for the whole day. At 6 p.m., when most of the students return to their cozy homes, he squeezes in the packed metro, rushing to Yau Ma Tei for English tutoring. Two hours after an intense teaching session, with multiple ongoing projects occupying his mind, he then drags his exhausted body back to the studio. “It is nearly impossible to begin the day without a cup of Americano,” he said. Working and studying non-stop from 9 a.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. is more than normal for him, and has become his daily routine.

     There is no respite on weekends. Starting from Yau Ma Tei, Chan then travels to Diamond Hill, Tiu Keng Leng and Tsung Kwan O. Nine hours of tutoring from day to night, he finally ends his day by working on projects in the studio on Saturday. That is not all. As far as Shenzhen, at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, he is ready for another four hours of teaching.

     Working has become a huge component of his life with more than 25 hours a week, excluding the travel time. Pulling all-nighters is common for him. Though it is just one of the extreme cases, many local university students have similar practice as well. Michelle Sze, another HKU student, has several tutoring jobs weekly. She recalls her personal record of working over 16 hours a week, though less than that of Chan, she earns around HK$1,500 per week.

“It is a trend among Hong Kong’s local students,” says Sze, “And the main reason of working part-time is extra money.” The other HKU student, Psyche Cheng, shares the exact same view, “Just for money, [that is] the biggest reason for me to do part-time jobs.”

     Besides the desire for extra cash, Chan was influenced by his parents’ value as well. “The older generation, my parents, for example, would give me a perception that university life is linked with jobs, because they really need to work to support their studies at their time.” Thus, he adds “this trend gradually turns into a culture passed on from one to another generation among local people.” Sze echoed Chan’s comment, describing that the time students enter university marks the beginning of being more independent and responsible due to the expectation of the whole society facing them. And to financially support oneself is naturally a part of it. Responding to what general local university students have in mind, Michael Law, the father of a university student, says: “I do encourage and support them to take up part-time jobs.” But he also clarified that he didn’t expect his kid to be financially independent completely, though he certainly hoped to see that.

     Professor Gary Harfitt, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Education of HKU, expressed his concern by saying “the first and foremost part of students is their studies, they have to strike a balance, even though working part-time in Hong Kong has become a sense of inevitability.” As a university professor, he considered part-time jobs beneficial to students, while he worried about if students cross the line, it will become a lose-lose situation. Because students can neither attain quality university education, nor perform well as a part-time worker.

    A Youth Survey conducted by the Society for Community Organization in 2017 reveals that part-time working has become a trend, with 85.3 percent of post-secondary students in Hong Kong holding part-time jobs. On top of that, “The distinctness between part-time jobs and internships has become progressively obscure,” according to Juliann Ho, the student advising officer for careers at Centre of Development and Resources for Students (CEDARS) at HKU. Such phenomenon provides some explanations for the high figures of students working part-time, as increasingly more internships serve part-time jobs’ purpose as well. On the other hand, Ziva Chan, a HKU student, explains that part-time internships enrich one’s experience and CV, and help students connect. She also compares the so-called part-time internship with tutor jobs saying “people being a tutor [is] mostly because of the money…it is flexible, earnings are negotiable and it is relatively easy.”

Credits: Society for Community Organization

Given the advantages of tutoring, it is obvious to see why amid those university students who work part-time, 74.2 percent did tutor-related jobs, 25.4 percent engaged in the service industry and 22.3 percent was research assistants, indicated in the Youth Studies Series report by Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG) in 2013.

    The trend of university students working part-time could be found in western countries as well. For instance, in the United Kingdom, 63 percent of the university students participated in part-time jobs, according to a research conducted by National Union of Student on behalf of Endsleigh in 2015. In the United States as well, as researched by Georgetown University in 2015, more than 70 percent of college students were employed over the past 20 years. Although there is a large portion of university students working part-time in the US and the UK, Hong Kong’s case is still marginally higher than both countries.

     However, it is not as common for students in Asia to work. Take Taiwan as an example, the official statistics by Taiwanese government shows only 40.4 percent of university students work part-time, far lower than Hong Kong. Daniel Chan comments on this since he often travels to Taiwan due to his projects’ needs, “I think Hong Kong and Taiwan are very different. Students in Hong Kong are more realistic, as we tend to step into society earlier, and we know the suffering we will encounter in the future.”

     Facing expectations from the society and parents, studies and assignments in college and the self-expectations to be independent, students often find it hard to handle such enormous burden in their early 20s according to a research by HKFYG in 2015. Professor Rainbow Ho of both the Social Science and the Medical faculty at HKU, nonetheless, has a different view, “pressure is everywhere, if you want to buy a house, get married, even afford the expensive transportation fees, it is necessary [for you] to face it.” Sze and Daniel Chan express similar ideas that works and studies always incur stress, but eventually, they are satisfied when witnessing the escalation of numbers in their bank accounts.

     Are Hong Kong’s university students obsessed with part-time jobs? The answer is probably affirmative. However, professor Ho regarded this trend as a positive phenomenon, she explains “life does not solely consist of studying. Under this pressure, those students survive better.”

     “If you were given the chance to choose again, will you take these jobs?” Daniel Chan answers, “It is an irreversible trend, when you can support yourself to buy an iPhone, you cannot go back to the stage of asking money again.”

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