An alarming number of local students, including top scorers, have turned down offers from Hong Kong universities this year to go overseas.
Overseas and mainland students also rejected studying in Hong Kong as five out of eight public universities told The Standard that they have seen fewer non-local applications this year.
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's department of government and public administration, blamed the national security law for making parents send children overseas as an escape plan.
But former chief executive Leung Chun-ying disagreed, saying the local universities have only themselves to blame for seeing their reputation ruined in riots.
A total of 41,664 students took part in the Joint University Programs Admissions System this year in the hope of getting into local universities, a drop of 2,749 from last year, with the figures declining since 2013. Among them, 15,642 students were made offers to bachelor degree programs, 300 fewer than in 2019.
But as the results came out, some students gave up the offers, including some top scorers in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams, instead deciding to study abroad.
Choy said he first heard from colleagues in some departments about this phenomenon. The number of pupils rejecting offers increased, compared with only one or two in previous years.
He later found out from management of other universities that it is a general issue, not something only Chinese University is facing.
"It's not only in one university, I know it happened in several universities," he said.
The situation in Hong Kong's top universities was more serious, forcing them to recruit students from outside the Joint University Programs Admissions System to fill vacancies, he said.
Choy believed the talent drain had to do with parents sending their children overseas as an escape plan due to the national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong on July 1 as the city is under political instability, sharp conflicts and hatred, after a series of political events and the security law. He said many Hongkongers who have the capability started sending their children away.
Choy was rebuked by Leung, who said local universities were snubbed due to their reputation linked to rioters, and asked Choy whether he knows the nickname of Chinese University - "rioters' university."
Leung wrote on Facebook yesterday: "People outside the ivory tower would not be surprised about such a situation."
He said parents would like to stay away from Chinese University's vice-chancellors like Rocky Tuan Sung-chi, teachers like Chan Kin-man, who is one of the Occupy Central leaders, and students like Sonia Ng Ngo-suet, a CUHK and protester who has accused the police of sexual violence. Leung believed if the pandemic was under control in Britain and America, there would be more students rejecting offers by local universities next year.
He also said scholars from overseas do not want to take up teaching jobs in Hong Kong universities.
Leung also claimed there would be no vacancies in university places and teaching jobs if "everyone knows what the overall quality of students and new teachers is."
Overseas applications to local universities for this academic year also dropped, universities said.
A University of Hong Kong spokesman said the university "anticipated and noticed a slight decrease in the number of applications for admissions to our undergraduate programs from mainland and overseas," but it is confident that there will be no difficulty in filling all places with quality students without compromising standards.
Chinese University said the pandemic has affected its student recruitment plans in different places, and students' intentions to study abroad have been affected to some extent.
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the City University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University noticed a decline in non-local applications.
Meanwhile, some parents with young children have already planned to send them overseas.
Joe, a father of two toddlers, said he has prepared "an evacuation plan" in case the situation worsens in Hong Kong. "We have an evacuation plan in case anything happens in Hong Kong. As our daughters do not have foreign nationality, our whole family needs to leave together if the situation is urgent in Hong Kong," he said.
"It will be better to study overseas in Western countries where at least the universities are better. And we've planned to let them study in international schools in Hong Kong first," he said.
A Mrs Lee said she would like her daughter, aged one, to study overseas if she is financially capable but only when she is in her teens.
"I do not have much confidence in the social situation in Hong Kong but I find the education system here is still fine," she said.