International students face fee hikes of up to 20%

Hong Kong's eight government-funded universities have raised tuition fees by as much as 20% for non-local students this year, attributing the hike to inflation and a stronger yuan. More than 10,000 students will be affected.

Chinese University, the University of Science and Technology and City University have all increased the cost of their undergraduate programmes for non-locals from HK$100,000 (US$13,000) to HK$120,000 (US$15,500) per year.

“The costs have gone up due to inflation and the appreciation of renminbi [yuan],” said Chouk Yin, the external liaison manager of mainland and external affairs at City University. “The adjustment is to ensure the quality of our education.”

The University of Hong Kong will charge non-local undergraduates HK$135,000 a year – a rise of HK$16,000. Polytechnic University, Lingnan University and Baptist University have lifted their fees to HK$110,000 from HK$100,000. The Hong Kong Institute of Education now charges HK$100,000 a year, an increase of 17.6%.

The last time local universities increased tuition fees was in 2010. Fees for local students will remain the same.

There are more than 10,000 non-local students at the eight universities, including almost 6,000 undergraduates. About 77% are from mainland China, according to the University Grants Committee (UGC), a panel that advises the government.

Attracting mainland students

Despite the tuition fee increase, Melanie Wan, senior manager of communications at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), was confident the university would remain attractive to mainland students.

“Over the years, HKU has attracted top students from the mainland with its high quality education and internationalised campus,” she said.

“Scholarships are available for outstanding students, and there are financial aids to support those in need. The purpose is to make sure that no one will be deprived of the opportunity to study in the university out of financial reasons.”

The university took in 360 mainland undergraduates last year, up from about 300 in previous years. The university said the increase was a one-off and due to the change in the university system last year that h extended undergraduate programmes from three years to four years. Wan said that this year the number would return to around 300.

Duan Bing, a senior consultant at Dongfang International Centre for Educational Exchange, a mainland education consultancy, also believed higher tuition fees would not put off mainland students.

He said the ‘Western-style’ education, high rankings of universities and high scholarships had been attracting more and more mainland students and parents to universities in the city, while the household income of mainland families had also been rising.

“This year our company has formed a team for the Hong Kong market,” said Duan. “This shows how strong the demand is.”

Denting demand

But some observers took the view that increasing fees for non-local students would dent demand.

“The increase of tuition will definitely affect non-local students’ willingness to come to Hong Kong,” said Professor Chung Yue-ping, education finance expert at the Chinese University. “Local universities can create more scholarships, provide subsidies for living and allow students to take certain paid jobs to lessen the impact.”

Wang Siqing, a Guangzhou resident whose 17-year-old son is in his second year of high school, said he wanted to send the boy to a university in Hong Kong so that he could develop "international horizons and critical thinking" skills.

“Of course it’ll be even better if he can get a scholarship,” said the father at HKU’s programme introduction session in Guangzhou. “But if he doesn’t, I’m willing and able to afford his tuition.”

Tuition did not seem to be a problem for Chen Hui either. She wanted Hong Kong to be her 17-year-old daughter’s stepping stone to higher degrees in Western countries.

“Hong Kong universities have high rankings,” she said. “They also provide quality education. I think it’s worth it. I’m just not sure if my daughter is good enough to get into a university there.”

Sixteen-year-old Wu Xiaowen was also at the Guangzhou session. She, however, was not so sure about paying full tuition. “I hope I can have a scholarship,” she said. “If I can’t, I’ll stay in the mainland.”

Scholarship increases

The eight universities have all increased the levels of scholarships accordingly. The amount of the highest admission scholarship provided in each university is enough to cover full tuition and average costs of living.

Even after the tuition fee increase, however, both City University’s Chouk and HKU’s Wan said the current tuition fee is still not enough to cover the costs of training each student, and that the university needs to subsidise non-local students from non-government funds.

The average cost of educating an undergraduate student enrolled in a government-funded programme was HK$233,000 (US$30,000) last academic year, according to the UGC.

Under the existing policy, UGC-funded institutions can admit non-local students up to 20% of the government-approved student number. Only 4% of non-local students are allowed to be subsidised by the government and the rest have to be self-funded.

“The purpose of admitting non-local students is to make our university more international,” said Chouk. “Making money is not the purpose. Admitting non-local students can also promote communications between local students and students from other cultures. It can broaden the scope of local students.”

Chouk added that Hong Kong’s SAR government encourages local universities to admit more non-local students. She said City University would continue the practice as long as the government’s policy remained unchanged.

“Mainland students are very hard-working,” said Chinese University’s Chung Yue-ping. “They cherish their opportunities of studying here. Hong Kong students should reflect on their own attitude and learn from mainland students.”

* This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on 3 May 2013. It is reproduced with permission.