Students ‘flee’ change to four-year degrees

As Hong Kong shifts from a three-year to a four-year degree structure and school-leavers enter university a year earlier, students are applying to study abroad in large numbers to escape a squeeze on university places and amid fears over recognition abroad of the new untried school exam.

Hong Kong’s eight universities will simultaneously have students completing the old three-year degrees and the new four-year degree under a new university system that begins in September. Students have expressed fears of massive overcrowding in lecture halls, and overstretched professors.

At the same time, around 110,000 school-leavers will be competing for just 30,000 higher education places as the first Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education cohort of 17-year-olds vies for university places with the final A-level cohort of 18-year-olds, as the changeover takes effect this year.

Families also fear a huge cohort competing for jobs in 2015-16 as students complete their degrees.

Meanwhile, the pressure on some popular subjects such as sciences, medicine and nursing had led to admission odds that have frightened students into trying their luck abroad and as a backup in case they do not get into their preferred Hong Kong institutions.

“Applications to UK [universities] were up 37% by mid-January. This is partly due to the double cohort of students leaving school this year, although we are seeing greater numbers apply from the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education than Hong Kong Advanced Levels,” said Katherine Forestier, director of education at the British Council in Hong Kong.

Looking for alternatives

The huge rise in applications to UK universities comes on top of an 18.5% increase last year and a 31% increase since 2009.

“Often when there is a major education change, parents and students look for alternatives,” Forestier said.

She told University World News that universities in the US, Canada and Australia had also seen a rise in applications from Hong Kong. “But from feedback from our competitors it appears the increase is greatest for the UK.”

She said Britain might have a competitive edge because Hong Kong students with the equivalent of three A levels can complete degrees in three years – including in Scotland – rather than four in Hong Kong and America.

China and Taiwan

Education officials in Taiwan said this week that they expect a five-fold increase in university acceptances for Hong Kong students this year.

Hsin Lee, deputy director of Taiwan’s University Entrance Committee for Overseas Chinese Students, said some 600 Hong Kong students were accepted by Taiwan universities in 2010, but more than 3,000 applications had already been received from Hong Kong so far this year.

Taiwan has attempted to make it easier for Hong Kong students to apply to local universities by exempting them from Taiwan’s compulsory university entrance exams. Instead they will be allowed in on the basis of A-level and HKDSE exam results.

Mainland China has also said it will allow Hong Kong students to apply to over 63 universities, including top universities such as Peking and Tsinghua, on the basis of A-level and HKDSE results rather than requiring them to take the competitive national university entrance examinations known as the gaokao.

“This will not only provide an alternative route for Hong Kong students and relieve their pressure in gaining entry into universities, but also help them in their career development on the mainland or Hong Kong and nurture talent for our country,” an Education Bureau spokesperson told the Hong Kong media.

UK schools

Hong Kong has already seen a large rise in students applying to UK boarding schools and international schools in Hong Kong, which provide an alternative curriculum, in order to avoid the new, untried school-leaving exams.

There are fears that the unfamiliar qualification will not be as well taught or be as accepted for overseas university admissions as the better-known A levels, parents report.

Applications to UK boarding schools were up by a fifth last year.

“The 21% spike in new [Hong Kong] starters in UK independent schools in 2010 is also a factor – students who joined A-level courses are now applying for university. There is also an increased pool of candidates in the growing international and independent sectors in Hong Kong,” Forestier said.

“In terms of the school reforms there is inevitable nervousness. But when we see students getting into some of the top universities [abroad] some of that nervousness will dissipate,” she said.

There is also concern about how universities will cope.

Hong Kong’s City University, Polytechnic University and Chinese University have suffered delays in constructing new facilities to cope with the bottleneck although the University Grants Committee, which funds universities, said last month it expected the work to be completed on time.

Hong Kong University Deputy Vice-chancellor Roland Chin said last month that the institution was in talks with secondary schools in the vicinity to use their classrooms “in an emergency”.

Universities have extended the period for considering admissions, in order to process the huge numbers of applicants.