Non-local student quota doubles as city promotes hub status

The quota of non-local undergraduate students from overseas and mainland China at Hong Kong’s public universities is set to double from 20% to 40%, according to an announcement on Wednesday 25 October by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee in his annual policy speech.

This is part of a raft of measures he announced to position Hong Kong as an international hub for education as well as a centre for innovation and research.

Raising the cap from the 2024-25 academic year could increase the number of non-local students from around 3,000 now to about 6,000 of the 15,000 student intake. The majority are likely to be from mainland China, attracted to Hong Kong’s highly ranked institutions.

Around three-quarters of non-local students enrolled in the 2022-23 academic year were from the mainland. In practice, several universities overshot their limit in the past year. The cap on the number of non-local undergraduate students was last raised in 2008, from 10% to 20%.

There is no cap on the recruitment of foreign and mainland postgraduate students, but Lee announced on Wednesday that restrictions would be lifted on non-local postgraduate students seeking part-time jobs in Hong Kong, as part of the city’s measures to entice professional talent and encourage more to stay on.

Currently just 1% of overseas graduates from Hong Kong’s universities are staying on, at a time when the city is seeing a major exodus of talent and is vying with other Asian countries to attract top graduates.

The lifting of part-time work restrictions “will be implemented on a trial basis for two years, during which more than 35,000 students are expected to benefit”, Lee announced.

Non-local students joining vocational training institutions will be able to stay in Hong Kong for a year to look for jobs following graduation, in a two-year pilot scheme, he said.

Hong Kong’s Top Talent scheme, launched last year to allow graduates from the world’s top 100 universities to look for work in the city, attracted almost 26,000 successful applicants by the end of June 2023 – 95% of them from the mainland.

The list of universities for the Top Talent scheme will be expanded to include graduates from 184 institutions, Lee announced.

Families concerned

However, increasing the number of non-local undergraduate students has caused some concern among Hong Kong families who fear school-leavers in the city risk being “crowded out”.

Officials insist that raising the cap will not mean a reduction in the number of local students accepted at Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities. But with no increase in the overall number of students admitted each year, the government has been unable to explain how it will not impact on local students.

“Do they think we will not notice? If the number of places for non-Hong Kong students is doubled and there is no increase in the overall number of university places, then it is obvious some Hong Kong students will lose out,” said the parent of a Hong Kong student who will apply to university next year.

She added: “The government is not being honest about this. They will have to increase the total number [of places] otherwise even more Hong Kong students will go abroad.”

However, government officials noted a decline in local student applications in the past few years, due to Hong Kong’s declining population and a major exodus of middle-class families in the wake of the National Security Law imposed by Beijing from July 2020.

Another concern, rarely spoken out loud, is the dilution of English language proficiency and teaching if the number of mainland students is raised too quickly. Hong Kong’s public universities mainly teach in English.

More students from ‘Belt and Road’ countries

The Hong Kong authorities are keen to recruit more students from other Asian countries, particularly South East Asia and from regions taking part in China’s the Belt and Road initiative to diversify the non-local intake.

Lee announced a HK$1 billion (US$127.8 million) injection into the government’ scholarship fund to increase the scholarship quota for students from Belt and Road countries by 50% from next year.

Over the past seven years, the city’s education authorities have awarded HK$118 million (US$15 million) in scholarships to more than 430 overseas students, with an annual quota of 100 scholarships for students from Belt and Road countries, according to data from the Education Bureau.

PhD funding for ‘the best and brightest’ students from abroad will increase from 300 fellowships to 400 from the next academic year, Lee said on Wednesday.

Leaders of Hong Kong’s public universities are separately planning a joint HK$10 million (US$1.3 million) marketing campaign to attract students from countries in the Belt and Road Initiative and other countries such as South Korea. With 1,600 South Korean students currently studying in Hong Kong, it is the main source country after mainland China.

Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Russia, Italy and Nigeria are other countries being targeted. Hong Kong universities have not actively promoted themselves to international students in the past.

South Korea, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kazakhstan are the main source countries at present.

Professor Teng Jin-guang, president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who was part of a 70-member Hong Kong delegation to the Belt and Road Forum hosted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing last week, told local Hong Kong radio that his university has already been doing its part to link its students up with key partners in the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, some universities have raised concerns about lack of accommodation for higher numbers of foreign students, and in some cases may not be able to raise the numbers quickly.

Acknowledging this major constraint, Lee said on Wednesday: “The institutions may take into account their capacity to proceed, step by step, with admission of more non-local students, especially students from Belt and Road countries and from the mainland.”

Internationalisation is key

Some people believe the non-local quota should be even higher.

Education University of Hong Kong Associate Vice President Chow Man-kong, who is also a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, said the quotas should be raised to 50%, and the increase brought in in phases.

But universities welcomed the raising of quotas, and opportunities for overseas students and researchers to collaborate with mainland universities.

Joshua Ka-ho Mok, vice president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told University World News: “Chinese leaders are in favour of Hong Kong universities’ internationalisation. They think this is Hong’s Kong’s competitive edge.”

“Hong Kong’s universities, not just my university, are very keen to work on the regional dimension [in China] and also internationally. They think that mainland universities in the Bay Area are not international enough so they want to work with us to rise up this path of internationalisation,” he said, referring to the Bay area cluster of Hong Kong, Macau and 11 mainland cities.

“One of the advantages is the autonomy of universities in Hong Kong compared to the mainland,” said Mok, speaking before the decision was announced – but it was widely anticipated.

Lee also announced several longer-term projects for cross-border university collaboration with the mainland including a microelectronic academy to be set up next year to study third-generation semiconductors, and research projects between Hong Kong and the neighbouring mainland city of Shenzhen.