Hong Kong students took university entrance exams in their tens of thousands on Monday in the diploma’s biggest sitting since the Covid-19 crisis began, although 42 were absent or turned away with fever and other illnesses.
Some 47,700 Diploma of Secondary Education candidates sat liberal studies, the first core-subject test of the term and one that has attracted controversy in the past for touching on sensitive political topics.
Students told the Post that one of the hardest questions asked them to analyse the limits of press freedom for the protection of national security or public order.
The total number of those reporting ill so they could not take or finish the DSE exams, which began on Friday, was at 62 on Monday after 20 fell into that category last week.
Many candidates arrived more than an hour early to the 243 secondary schools running the exams amid strict anti-contagion measures.
Upon entering the venues, candidates were required to submit a health declaration form and have their temperature checked. Anyone with a temperature over 38 degrees Celsius would be asked to leave and see a doctor immediately.
Mandatory infection control measures at the exam centres also included setting desks 1.8 metres apart and requiring all candidates and invigilators to wear masks.
At Munsang College in Kowloon City, more than 50 students were lining up outside the school at around 7.30am. Some of the 20 janitors on duty put on disposable gowns and face shields when maintaining order as students entered the campus.
Lam Ho-sang, 18, said he had taken in an additional five masks, as well as a bottle of hand sanitiser to protect himself.
“There are still risks that I could be infected [with Covid-19] during the exam, which could spread to my family members as well,” he said.
Principal Kudy Chan Yin-hung said the exam process mostly ran smoothly, adding the school had spent more than HK$100,000 (US$12,900) on infection control materials, including two infrared temperature screening machines, and over 100 sets of disposable gowns, face shields and gloves.
“We decided to buy the [gowns and face shields] because we hoped our janitors would not need to worry ... especially when they had to clean the washrooms during the exams,” Chan said. “We want our candidates to be at ease, as well as all our staff.”
At CMA Secondary School in Shek Kip Mei, where about 150 candidates took the exam, vice-principal Chow Sau-leuk said they had allowed candidates to enter the campus as early as 7am – about 50 minutes earlier than required by exam authorities – to avoid students having to line up in groups.
“When students queue up outside, it might be difficult to manage a large group of people,” Chow said. “[Opening the doors early] could also lower the risk of cross-infection.”
One student reported shortness of breath on the health declaration form, but had a doctor’s note saying the sickness was unrelated to Covid-19, he added. The school therefore arranged a classroom in which the candidate could take the test individually, after consulting exam authorities.
Liberal studies exams in the city are known for occasionally touching on controversial political topics.
Some students said one question on Monday’s paper – asking them to name two examples of tensions between press freedom and social responsibility – was particularly difficult.
Candidates were asked to analyse excerpts from a journal article and newspaper commentary that suggested press freedom was not absolute because it could be restricted for the protection of national security or public order.
Kasey Ho, 17, said she was careful to avoid reflecting her personal views too much in her answer. “I do not know what the marker’s stance is and I had to avoid being biased when answering,” she said.
But veteran liberal studies teacher Cheung Yui-fai believed as long as candidates’ answers were reasonable, they could score well irrespective of their political stance.
The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment said on Monday it hoped students could elaborate on different perspectives and identify the values which could have caused the tension, adding they were not asked to choose whether press freedom or social responsibility was more important.
Last year, pro-establishment politicians blamed the subject for encouraging young people to take part in anti-government protests, which were sparked in June 2019 by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
The start of the DSE exams, previously due on March 27, were postponed until April 24 because of the pandemic. The tests are scheduled to last until late May.
Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.