In early May, thousands of teenagers will queue up at Hong Kong's prime concert venue, the Asia-World Expo, which hosts major Western pop acts such as Lady Gaga, Oasis and Coldplay. Almost all of them will have travelled from mainland China – not to catch a glimpse of a music idol, but to take their best shot at entering an American college.
Last year an estimated 40,000 mainland Chinese students travelled to Hong Kong to take the Scholastic Assessment Test, or SAT, a standardised college admissions examination run by the US College Board.
Because the exam is not offered in China, students have to travel to Hong Kong, which as a semi-autonomous region of China has its own economic and political system, or even further to Singapore. This year’s SAT exam is scheduled for 4 May in Hong Kong.
Organising these trips, often well in advance, has become a lucrative business.
China's largest private education company, New Oriental Education – which has almost 18,000 teachers in 50 cities across China – is the largest operator of ‘SAT exam groups’, organising trips to Hong Kong and to Singapore. It charges each student US$800-US$1,300 for a three- to five-day journey to either city.
Students take the trip three times on average before they achieve their desired SAT score, said Pang Ran, a teacher from New Oriental's VIP service in Beijing.
Parents will have already spent US$4,800-US$8,000 in teaching fees before sending their children for the exam, she said. A year of ‘VIP classes’ with private tutors from New Oriental can cost up to US$23,000.
That compares to an average annual income of US$6,500 in Shanghai and a national average income of US$4,300 among urban employees, according to figures released in January by the National Bureau of Statistics.
“Many middle-class families in particular consider sending their children abroad for education a very good investment,” Joshua Ka Ho Mok, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, told University World News.
The study tours are expanding fast.
New Oriental organised its first SAT exam trip to Hong Kong for a dozen students from Shanghai in 2003. The company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 2006, now sends thousands of students from all over China to the former British colony every year.
While student numbers are stagnating in China's own saturated hubs of Beijing and Shanghai, the company said it expected its revenue to grow by over 40% in China’s second- and third-tier cities, according to a stock exchange filing in January. In the quarter that ended on 28 February, its revenue will have grown by a third compared to the previous year.
“We took nearly 500 students to Hong Kong in January, 100 more than last year,” said Liu Jindi from the China Shan Shui Travel Agency, which organises some of the tours for New Oriental.
The agency helps students with visa applications and picks them up in Hong Kong. “Only 40 students went to Singapore, which has a nicer test environment” but is more expensive. Other students travel to Taiwan and even Thailand, according to New Oriental's microblog.
The US College Board does not publish SAT participation data for China, but said in an emailed statement that “participation in the SAT and SAT Subject Tests is increasing significantly among students reporting an address in mainland China but who take the SAT elsewhere”.
One in four foreign students in the United States is from China, according to the annual Open Doors survey published by the Institute of International Education, making China the country’s largest source of foreign students.
Some 194,000 Chinese students studied at US universities in the 2011-12 academic year, an increase of 23.1% from the previous year.
Opting out of the gaokao
Those venturing abroad are still a tiny, privileged fraction of the 27.6 million students enrolled in undergraduate degree programmes across China, according to the latest figures by China’s Ministry of Education.
The number of high school students taking China’s national university entrance exam, the gaokao, has been decreasing since it peaked at 10.5 million in 2008. Last year, 9.2 million high school graduates took the exam, 180,000 fewer than in 2011.
Most students opting out of the gaokao are either going abroad or choosing a branch of a foreign university in China, said Mok, adding that the Chinese government is encouraging students to stray away from China's traditional tertiary education path.
“The government thinks that the local universities will take a lot of time to expand.”
Complex local regulation also makes it harder for the children of China's migrant population to take the gaokao outside their parents' province of origin. Urban students can get into the country's best universities with scores lower than rural gaokao exam takers, because of the current admission preference for local students.
The gaokao system is "a hard bone to chew", Minister of Education Yuan Guiren said at an education policy planning session in Beijing on 9 January, putting the exam’s reform at the centre of his fourth year in office while also providing more incentives for students to study abroad.
The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority was not available to comment on whether mainland students strain its resources, but said in an emailed statement that it strives to cope with “the recent increase in mainland students for SAT in Hong Kong”, adding that it had no “plan at all to restrict non-local students”.
For Mok, more mainland students coming to Hong Kong could help it become an education hub. "If more come to Hong Kong, educational services could become another pillar of our economic drive."
Low quality, social Darwinism drive study-abroad fever
Uphill battle to reform high-stakes university entrance exams
Relaxation of university entrance exam rules on the cards
Chinese drive 5% international student growth
Top students opt for Hong Kong
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters