Both China and Hong Kong were agog at the news earlier this month that the top performers in China's ferociously competitive national university entrance examination (gaokao) have opted to study at Hong Kong universities rather than China's own prestigious institutions.
While the number who opted for Hong Kong were tiny - the four top scorers in Beijing district, regarded as having the country's best high schools, and around a dozen others with top scores from other provinces - the psychological impact both sides of the border far outweighs the figures.
Discussions on why they chose Hong Kong has dominated debate in university common rooms, student blogs and parent forums, particularly the implications for the best universities in China, such as Peking and Tsinghua, which are aiming for world class status with the help of a massive injection of state funds.
"With better facilities and a more humanistic atmosphere, Hong Kong universities have proved more attractive than their mainland competitors," said a reader from Jinan in Shandong province, quoted by the official China Daily. "Mainland university officials need to think more about the cause of their failure to attract top students."
Another person from Xi'an said: "The attraction of mainland universities is declining - even the prestigious universities like Tsinghua and Peking lack innovation and a competitive edge. In contrast many Hong Kong universities have reached international standards and possess the latest educational resources."
Hong Kong's universities regularly top Asian university rankings, but it is only recently that a growing number of top gaokao students have preferred Hong Kong over China, and the numbers are growing.
This year some 290 mainland Chinese have opted for Hong Kong's universities and more than a dozen of them are regarded as 'gaokao champions'. This is double the number of top scorers admitted to Hong Kong institutions last year.
"Beijing district has some of the best students in China and all four [top scorers] are coming to Hong Kong," Tony Chan, President of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), told University World News.
"We at HKUST are getting the top science student of the four. We are a small institution with only 150 slots for students from the Chinese mainland but we have 4,000 applicants. It is harder than getting into Harvard," said Chan.
"We are attractive partly because of Asia's rise and China's rise. The Hong Kong university system has a long tradition and has a good, strong foundation."
Huang Zihang, one of the top two gaokao scorers in 2010 in her home province of Heilongjiang in north-east China, is now studying accounting and finance at HKUST. The number of top students going to Hong Kong was a hot topic at home, she said, adding that she had opted for the city because it was international "yet the local culture is similar to Chinese culture.
"Hong Kong is a place of opportunities for a graduate. In China there is very fierce competition, a lot more competition for jobs from other graduates. They have to go for postgraduate degrees because it is hard to find a job," she told University World News. With its banking industry, she felt she could build a better career in her chosen field of finance by studying in Hong Kong.
And the trend is not confined to institutions physically in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), with a branch campus called United International College across the border in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, attracted 'tier three' students from the mainland when it first opened in 2006. "But now they get the top tier applicants," said Albert Chan, President of HKBU.
At HKBU in Hong Kong "we can get the best students. We only admit 100 mainland students a year but 1,000 want to be considered. Some of our programmes are better than Beijing and Tsinghua [universities] and some students who are eligible to get into Peking and Tsinghua may not be able to enter our programmes," said Chan.
But there may be competition on the horizon, with a number of branch campuses from well-known overseas institutions due to open in Shanghai.
"The arrival of these branch campuses means that China will get more overseas-style education. More overseas education will mean more competition for good students. But there will also be more students familiar with the overseas system," said HKBU's Albert Chan.
International branch campuses in China, particularly in attractive cities such as Shanghai, "are a bold experiment and we are watching them closely," said HKUST's Tony Chan. "But these are relatively new and the jury is still out."
However, some university presidents warn that Hong Kong may not be able to hang onto its current advantage, particularly as it is preoccupied with restructuring its own university system from three-year degrees to four-year degrees from 2012.
"I see a risk, that we are in danger of losing our edge if we don't get more funding from the government," said Albert Chan. "We are bit disappointed that the government is not paying for all the extra costs of switching to a four-year system."
In particular he worries that institutions will not have enough professors to cope with the extra cohort of students next year, and that inadequate funding will mean they may not be able to attract the best faculty, which is undoubtedly one of the major strengths of Hong Kong's universities.
"There could be a big problem in the future. Quality will suffer and our rankings may be in trouble on the ratio of students to professors, if the government does not come back with more money," said Albert Chan.
"We are lucky to have good rankings. They are not the only target for us but sometimes they are an indicator of how we compare with other parts of the world," said Michelle Li, Deputy Secretary for Education in the Hong Kong government.
The government eased its restrictions on the numbers of overseas students universities can take from 10% in 2002, and has capped the proportion at 20% since 2008. Currently around 13% to 15% students are from overseas, 80% of them from China, she said.
"We get thousands of applications from China," Li stated. "A lot of these people have noticed that Hong Kong universities enjoy an international reputation backed by an international environment. And there is also a word of mouth effect. People firmly believe that it is a gateway to further studies overseas, either in Hong Kong or in the UK or US Ivy league because Hong Kong's quality [of education] is better recognised overseas."
Another reason was that Hong Kong has relaxed its immigration rules to allow graduates to stay on, she said. Once they have stayed seven years - including the time they were studying - they are entitled to coveted permanent residency and the right to live and work in Hong Kong. "Our immigration rules boosted Hong Kong's attractiveness," Li said.
In China the issue of top students preferring Hong Kong is being chewed over even more than in Hong Kong.
"China's social media has deliberately made use of this to say it demonstrates that Peking and Tsinghua universities, which are the country's top, are not good enough. It has been the outlet for student frustrations," said Cheng Kai-Ming, a professor of education at Hong Kong University.
"The truth is that Hong Kong does not know why so many [gaokao] champions are coming here. It's not simply explained by the rankings or better administration [of universities]. It's simple - students want a better life and that is not something that propaganda or public relations efforts can achieve," said Cheng.
"If you look at the [rankings] indicators nothing is mentioned about students and how satisfied they are with campus life. The dignity and integrity of faculty are not mentioned."
Some of these issues have come up in blogposts and other feedback. "Mainland universities are facing great challenges attracting top students because they are still living in the past," said a reader from Huangzhou in Zhejiang province, quoted by China Daily.
"It is more accurate to say these excellent mainland high school graduates have chosen another education system and cultural atmosphere rather than Hong Kong's universities per se. When the most fundamental but also the most scarce principles of education, such as creative thinking, are given full respect in Hong Kong and overseas, it is easy to understand why Peking university and other mainland universities fail to enrol top students."
But Hong Kong is not resting on its laurels.
"I do believe the high ranking of Hong Kong universities is an attraction and we will do everything to maintain our rankings. But what we should avoid is too big an intake [of mainland students]. We want to keep the quality of our education and therefore we cannot compromise," said Joseph Sung, Vice-chancellor of Hong Kong's Chinese University.
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