Lawmakers have criticised Hong Kong’s higher education funding body, the University Grants Committee, for subsidising students from mainland China and from overseas while thousands of local students are unable to receive government assistance.
A report from the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s public accounts committee or PAC, issued last week, referred to the number of non-local students enrolled in publicly funded university programmes increasing from 10,074 in 2010-11 to 15,730 in 2015-16, with the majority – three quarters of the total – from mainland China.
According to the PAC report, with 22,000 school leavers from Hong Kong meeting entrance requirements for admission into undergraduate programmes in 2016, the University Grants Committee or UGC had available funding for only 15,000 local students for 2016-17.
This meant some 7,000 local students who had met university entrance requirements would not be able to benefit from government-subsidised public education.
“The [public accounts] committee expresses great dissatisfaction and finds it unacceptable that resources granted to the universities which could have been used to admit more local students had been used to admit non-local students,” said the report released on 15 February.
Lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party said in a press conference on Wednesday: “There are too many overseas students, and many mainland students, who have taken their [Hong Kong students’] places.”
Places for local students in Hong Kong’s highly ranked universities has been a sensitive issue since the British colonial era, with the number of places restricted, forcing students to go abroad or more latterly to attend private institutions in Hong Kong.
More recently there has been concern at the number of students from mainland China attending Hong Kong’s universities, adding to a perception of a squeeze on local opportunities. The numbers from the mainland are capped at 20% of undergraduate enrolment.
’One Belt, One Road’ rebranding
For lawmakers, dissatisfaction has been compounded by the rebranding of Hong Kong’s scholarship programme for overseas students since last year to a scheme for so-called ‘One Belt, One Road’ countries.
Hong Kong in the past set up a HK$1 billion (US$129 million) scholarship fund to use the investment income generated for overseas student scholarships.
From 2016-17 it is be used for students from ‘One Belt, One Road’ countries beginning with Indonesia and then extending to Malaysia – and for scholarships for Hong Kong students to study in ‘One Belt, One Road’ countries.
China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is designed to strengthen economic cooperation between China and countries along the ancient Silk Road and as well as a new ‘Maritime Silk Road’.
A mainly trade and infrastructure development plan, it covers more than 60 economies in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa – many of the countries not a usual destination for Hong Kong students, who have traditionally looked to universities in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
Hong Kong’s 100 ‘One Belt, One Road’ scholarships a year will be introduced in a phased manner beginning with 10 to 20 scholarships per annum worth HK$120,000 (US$15,500) a year to study at any Hong Kong public university.
China has also announced 100 Silk Road scholarships under its Universities Alliance of the New Silk Road scheme, launched during a conference at Xi’an Jiaotong University in May 2015, which eventually included 134 universities from 34 countries to serve as research and education platforms for wider economic, infrastructure and trading goals.
Last year China also announced its own ‘One Belt, One Road’ scholarship scheme, for 10,000 students from those countries to study in China.
The Hong Kong scholarship initiative has been criticised for being vague and not aligned to Hong Kong’s own goals, but rather being an extension of Beijing’s foreign and economic policies.
Legislators have repeatedly criticised the scheme, first announced by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in January 2016.
Lam Tai-fai, chair of the Hong Kong Legislative Council's education panel, said in a question to the legislature in June 2016 that the Hong Kong scholarship scheme “in fact aims to flatter and toady to the central [Chinese] authorities for political advantages [with Beijing]”.
Under the programme, scholarships are required to promote the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative and “think how they can personally advance the policy and individual capacity”.
Last week, lawmakers said the additional scholarships reduced the options of local students.
“It forces many of our young kids to attend private universities and study for associate degrees,” PAC Chairman Abraham Shek Lai-him said, adding that the 15,000 local student quota for public universities had not changed since British colonial rule ended in 1997.
Fears in Hong Kong that non-local students were taking up publicly funded places at the expense of local students led to a policy change – starting from 2016 non-local student numbers would be over and above the enrolment ceiling for local students.
However, a recently released government audit report said that at least one publicly funded university had overshot the enrolment limit of 20% non-local students for undergraduate programmes.
The Hong Kong government’s Education Bureau said in a statement to the PAC that “as a matter of principle” the enrolment of non-local students in public universities “should not be considered as creating an adverse impact on local students of these programmes".
“On the contrary, non-local students help diversify the local higher education sector and enhance the competitiveness of our students and Hong Kong as a whole.
“A multicultural learning environment with the students coming from other countries and regions will help enhance cultural exchanges, broaden the horizons of the local students and ensure that our graduates, local and non-local alike, are globally competitive.”
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