Should Hong Kong rethink its higher education plans?

Additional financial resources and capacity have been allocated by the Hong Kong government to support the restructuring of higher education into the 3-3-4 model – three years of junior and senior secondary respectively and four years of bachelor study.

This was done to accommodate the double cohort, where two batches of first-year university students start simultaneously as a result of the shift to the new four-year bachelor programmes, which started this academic year.

However, what will happen after the double cohort ends in school year 2014-15? Will funding continue to flow into the university sector? With the normalisation of the university student cohort in 2015-16, what should the sector do with the capacity built to accommodate the double cohort?

Given a 60% post-secondary participation rate in Hong Kong, it may seem that there is no room for additional student intake. However, the successful absorption of two first-year university cohorts this year shows that the university sector now has the capacity to accommodate more students than in previous years.

Should Hong Kong focus on increased internationalisation (intra-nationalisation) of its higher education sector? Or look into providing more places for local students, and-or providing additional pathways for associate degree students to upgrade to full bachelor degrees?

Issues for the future

We need to remember that only around 18% of post-secondary students are enrolled in University Grants Commission-funded (UGC) higher education institutions. As such, the UGC now needs to consider the efficient and most practical use of the excess capacity brought about by its structural shift towards a four-year bachelor programme.

In doing so, the UGC needs to consider domestic demand for higher education, its drive towards increased internationalisation and the actual needs of the city state. Furthermore, social tensions related to mainland China-Hong Kong relationships, particularly in the provision of public services such as education, need to be taken into account.

Hong Kong has been focused on building an international image in line with its desire to maintain its competitive advantage as a world city and its internationalisation initiatives in higher education.

But concentrating on factors that influence international league tables – such as research, the presence of international academics and students, funding and international reputation – marginalises the needs of its own citizens and demand for higher education within the city state.

Furthermore, it increases reliance on skilled and competent international students, mostly from China, and inward migration.

This may have worked for Hong Kong over the past decades, but increased competition in the international labour market may requires a rethink of this strategy and a move towards developing its own citizens' skills and competence for the 21st century.

The 18% post-secondary participation in UGC-funded higher education institutions and their programmes is a result of lack of funding provided by the Hong Kong government. It limits the participation of students who may have met university admissions criteria, but were crowded out of the system due to the number of places in such universities.

The fact that a large number of Hong Kong students manage to find places in other, higher education-exporting countries shows they have the qualifications and capacity to pursue higher education. So provisions need to be made to allow more self-funded university students into universities beyond the quotas assigned by the UGC.

Lastly, provisions for helping students on associate degree programmes to top up to a full bachelor degree may need to be made to effectively and efficiently utilise the excess capacity brought about by Hong Kong’s shift to the new 3-3-4 structure.

It is apparent that there will be excess capacity in the higher education sector starting from the school year 2015-16. Policy-makers therefore need to plan ahead for how to use this capacity, taking into consideration Hong Kong’s domestic demands, its internationalisation efforts and the needs of its own labour market.

In other words, should Hong Kong localise or internationalise the excess capacity brought about by its 3-3-4 structural reforms in higher education?

* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.