Universities’ non-local students ‘not diverse enough’

Hong Kong universities, often regarded as outward looking and internationally minded, are not diverse enough, according to a just-released Hong Kong government Audit Commission report.

It notes that students from mainland China made up 76% of non-local students at Hong Kong’s public universities in the past academic year.

Based on data from the Hong Kong funding body the University Grants Committee, or UGC, the number of non-local students in public universities in the academic year 2015-16 numbered some 15,730 – a 56% increase compared to 2010-11.

While non-local students were 16% of total enrolment, students from mainland China were the largest group, making up three-quarters of all non-local students in the past academic year.
Hong Kong’s Director of Audit noted that the UGC “sees internationalisation as the key to Hong Kong’s future and a matter of priority for the universities”.

The audit report released last week also cited a 2010 UGC report as saying “although it is important to encourage mainland [Chinese] students to enter Hong Kong universities, true internationalisation requires a much greater diversity of nationalities and cultural background”.

The auditors said the UGC needs to encourage universities to attract non-local students from places other than mainland China in order to promote more international diversity. Just 4% of the student body were non-local but not from mainland China.

Government policy limits the proportion of foreign students to 20% of the undergraduate intake, with no limit for postgraduate programmes.

However, the total proportion of students from mainland China had actually declined from 87% of all non-local students in the 2010-11 academic year.

Drop in mainland students

The proportion of mainland students had dropped in recent years in part because of high living costs in Hong Kong and the devaluation of the Chinese currency, the yuan, which has weakened by at least 5% against the US dollar in the past two years. The Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the US dollar, making Hong Kong a more expensive proposition for mainland students as well as students from other Asian countries who make up the bulk of the non-mainland international students.

One graduate student noted that mainland students had previously flocked to Hong Kong because several universities were top of the Asian university rankings, but universities in the mainland had made gains in recent years.

An often quoted reason for the decline in numbers from mainland China had been the student-led pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2014-15 and a feeling that mainlanders were not welcome in Hong Kong, although a number of university heads said jointly in Shanghai last year that this had not put applicants from the mainland off.

China’s official Xinhua news agency also noted last year that young people from the Chinese mainland had become less keen to pursue a career or study in Hong Kong.

“Ten years ago 80% to 90% of students from the mainland wished to stay in Hong Kong, while nowadays over 50% leave right after graduation without consideration,” Geng Chunya, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Mainland Graduates, was reported as saying, quoting figures collected by his association.

Strong competition

Some Hong Kong public universities, such as Hong Kong Baptist University and City University of Hong Kong, saw large drops in applications from the mainland in the past two years, but for graduate studies at both the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – Hong Kong’s highest ranked universities – the numbers had held up.

Competition to get into top Hong Kong universities is ferocious. At Hong Kong Baptist University only 190 out of 3,900 mainland applicants managed to secure a place for the 2015-16 academic year.

The University of Hong Kong said last year that 9,400 mainland Chinese from 31 provinces, cities and regions had applied for places for the 2015-16 academic year, and of those applicants it selected just 309.

Despite the decline in the proportion of mainland students, Hong Kong’s universities say it is difficult to attract more international students because of a limit on student accommodation places, and very high rentals in the private sector.

The auditors report recommended that the UGC secretary-general agree with universities on key performance indicators for internationalisation and continue to monitor the universities' performance on internationalisation.