Mandatory student ‘experience’ in China raises fears

A plan by the University of Hong Kong, or HKU, to bring in mandatory university exchange programmes to institutions in mainland China has caused an uproar among students, many of whom took part in last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and fear they could be barred from crossing the border or be held in China if they do so.

The new policy of compulsory exchanges approved by the HKU senate in February and announced publicly by HKU Vice-president and Pro Vice-chancellor of teaching and learning Professor Ian Holliday on 17 April is expected to be introduced in phases by 2022.

All students would be required to have ‘mainland experience’ as well as international experience, the university said.

"I was shocked to hear about it," HKU’s student union president Billy Fung Jing-en told local media on 17 April.

Speaking on local radio, Fung said: “Why make it compulsory? More specifically, why force students to visit a particular place, ie the mainland?”

Within days Holliday was forced to back down. He said in a meeting with HKU students on 20 April that the non-local programme would not just be an exchange with a mainland university but would include experiential learning, service learning, internships and research attachments.

“Compulsory exchanges have never been on the agenda,” he claimed at the meeting on Monday. “We do not have the mandatory policy that has been talked about,” and promised to consult students on how the programme would be devised.

“To be globally competitive, all of our students should have the chance to develop a global mindset, plus knowledge of China,” Holliday said.

HKU Vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson said in an interview with the South China Morning Post newspaper that exemption from mainland China trips “will be possible where justified”.


HKU has in recent weeks been felt to be under pressure from pro-Beijing factions in Hong Kong who have been angered by the role of the universities, and HKU in particular, during recent protests.

Hong Kong people are sensitive to attempts by Beijing to indoctrinate students or bring compulsory ‘patriotic education’ into Hong Kong secondary schools – a move that led to the formation of the Scholarism campaign group in 2012 led by student leader Joshua Wong, then just 14, which forced the Hong Kong government to drop the ‘patriotic education’ plan.

Ip Kin-yuen, a Hong Kong legislator representing the education constituency and a head of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, said there were concerns that student trips to China were seen as political and added that the mandatory plan could make some students reluctant to study at HKU.

A snap poll by HKU’s students' union found that three quarters of the 1,400 local students at the university did not want mainland experience to be compulsory. As many as 97% of students at HKU opposed any requirement to go to a particular place to study.

“HKU should have an Asian and international outlook; we should not just be looking to China,” said one student. Others said the focus on mandatory experience in China gave the plan political undertones, with little to do with enhancing the university experience of students.

Denied entry

Some students expressed fears that they could be arrested while in China.

During the height of last year’s student-led pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, known as Occupy Central or the Umbrella Revolution, when students were campaigning for genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive elections in 2017, student leaders hoping to fly to Beijing were denied entry to China.

Since then, a number of Hong Kong students have been barred from China, sparking concerns that the Chinese authorities have drawn up a blacklist of those who took part in the Hong Kong protests.

Students turned away at China’s border with Hong Kong since September 2014 when the student protests began, included not just members of student unions, but also students visiting relatives or crossing the border to shop in the mainland city of Shenzhen who say they had made such trips many times and had never been stopped in the past.

“Some [HKU] students are complaining that the university wants them to go to China but China won’t let them in, so how are they going to fulfil the requirement?” says Stephen Chan, an associate professor in the department of computing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or HKPolyU, which already operates such exchanges and other voluntary service trips to the mainland for its students.

The controversy also comes amid a heightened crackdown on the mainland against activists, dissidents and other groups, such as five feminist activists detained this month on charges of ‘disturbing public order’. The women planned to distribute leaflets calling for action against sexual harassment. Their detention led to an international outcry, including condemnation by the EU and the US.

Exchange programme

In his annual policy address in January, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Hong Kong students should be encouraged to join exchanges to mainland China and promised extra funds to universities to support such exchanges.

Of Hong Kong’s main universities, HKPolyU has the largest programme of experiential and service learning, with 3,000 students taking part each year in compulsory modules which include voluntary work, community service, work experience, study exchanges and other activities in Hong Kong and abroad.

Of these, some 400 go to mainland China, says HKPolyU’s Stephen Chan who is also head of its Office of Service Learning. Another 200 students each year go overseas, including to Rwanda and Cambodia.

HKPolyU is the only university in Hong Kong at present with a compulsory credit-bearing requirement to undertake experiential and service learning programmes in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere, which will be extended to all its 4,500 students by next year, he said.

While mainland experience itself is not mandatory, “we send hundreds of our students to projects in China and so far we have not had any problem”, he said. “Our China projects are very popular and we have to turn many students away.”