29 February 2020
Universities need to strike a reasonable balance between the interests of local students and the quest for internationalization. Photo:
Universities need to strike a reasonable balance between the interests of local students and the quest for internationalization. Photo:

Give the opportunity back to local students

The Hong Kong government recently proposed that starting from the first semester of 2016/17, non-local students will no longer be admitted to the associate, undergraduate and post-graduate degree programs provided by our universities according to the approved University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded student number targets. I welcome the decision and regard it as a first positive step towards putting things right.

The new measure ensures local Hong Kong students will be given priority over non-local students in admission for government-funded degree programs in our universities, thereby slightly relieving the current shortage of government-funded undergraduate places. In the meantime, local tertiary institutions can still admit overseas students to their non UGC-funded programs for up to 20 percent of the approved student number targets.

In the 2013/14 semesters, among the roughly 15,000 UGC-funded undergraduate places provided by our universities, the total number of acceptances for local students was 14,643 and 2,446 for overseas students.

Of course it is common practice for internationally renowned universities to accept a certain proportion of overseas students in order to facilitate cultural exchange and enhance their own research capacity. However, it is important for our tertiary institutions to strike a reasonable balance between the interest of local students and their quest for international fame.

The admission of overseas students to local UGC-funded undergraduate places dates back to 1996, when the UGC announced its report suggesting that the government give local universities a 4 percent quota to accept overseas students in order to develop Hong Kong into a tertiary education hub in the Asia Pacific region. In that 4 percent quota, half of them were to be funded by the UGC, and the adoption of this suggestion by the government spelled the beginning of the rapid internationalization of our universities.

After the handover, the SAR government was even more ambitious in strengthening Hong Kong’s status as a tertiary education hub in the region. And in 2002, the government suggested that more outstanding overseas students be accepted in order to enhance the overall quality of our tertiary education, and decided that all the places within the 4 percent quota would be funded by the UGC.

However, this decision has proven to be a double-edged sword as it also reduced the chance for admission of local secondary school graduates. In the years that followed, the government repeatedly increased the quota on accepting overseas students, and in the 2007/08 semesters, the quota was raised to as much as 20 percent. Among them, 4 percent were funded by the UGC, and the policy has remained unchanged since then.

The shortage of undergraduate places in local universities has been causing grave public concern over the years, as many secondary school graduates have been deprived of their opportunity to pursue further study even though they have fulfilled the admission requirement.

Out of the 15,000 undergraduate places available last year, only 12,000 of them were available for admission through the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE).

Among the remaining 3000 places, 600 were taken by non-local students while the other 2400 were given to students who did not sit for the HKDSE, such as international school students who took the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

More than 14,000 local students were turned down because of that shortage, many of whom were forced to enroll for non UGC-funded programs, which cost a lot more, or simply turn to overseas universities.

I find this unacceptable and ironic that while our government has kept pouring money into UGC-funded degree programs over the past decade, the chance for admission of local secondary school graduates has continued to diminish.

The government has definitely done the right thing in giving back those 600 places to local students in the 2016/17 semesters. And I think our administration should continue to put more resources into our tertiary education.

Steps are needed to increase the number of UGC-funded undergraduate places and provide subsidies for local students of non UGC-funded programs, so that more local secondary school graduates can be admitted to our universities.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 8.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Legislative Council member from the education sector