21 October 2016
Despite rapid expansion of higher education sector in the past decade, a place in a formal university still remains out of reach for many Hong Kong students.
Despite rapid expansion of higher education sector in the past decade, a place in a formal university still remains out of reach for many Hong Kong students.

Higher education: How the govt is getting its priorities wrong

For more than a decade, Hong Kong has been seeking rapid expansion in post-secondary education. Following the efforts all these years, is our tertiary education sector now really able to deliver on its promise and provide every eligible secondary school graduate in the city with the opportunity to receive higher education?

Before we answer this question, let’s first take a look at the situation about the admission rate of universities in the US, which may offer us some insight into the current state of our tertiary education.

Burton Clark, a prominent American education expert, had noted that state governments in the US often offer incentives for high school graduates to get enrolled in associate degree courses provided by community colleges. The move is aimed at cooling the students’ aspirations for pursuing university education, since the increase in the places in state universities just can’t keep up with the growing number of high school graduates.

It is said that only 22 percent of community college graduates in the US are able to gain admission to formal universities. In other words, community colleges have helped divert almost 80 percent of high school graduates into accepting an inferior substitute for formal undergraduate degrees and alleviate the shortage of university places across the country. A community college degree, though less competitive in the job market, could be the only option for students who either come from underprivileged families or whose grades are not good enough.

In fact what is happening in the US bears a striking resemblance to the situation in Hong Kong, where hundreds of private or publicly funded community colleges are providing tens of thousands of associate degree or higher diploma courses for secondary school graduates who at first could have aspired after a formal undergraduate degree, but over time, most of whom may end up resigning themselves to a lower qualification.

Simply put, the community colleges in Hong Kong are fulfilling the same kind of “cooling-out” function, a phrase coined by the late Clark himself, as their US counterparts.

Intriguingly, it seems community colleges in our city have outdone their US counterparts in fulfilling that so-called cooling-out function, as only 11.5 percent of our community college students here are able to gain admission to local universities, just a little more than half of the percentage in the US.

Aware of the severe shortage of university places in Hong Kong, the Education Bureau launched the “Mainland University Study Subsidy Scheme” (MUSSS) in 2014, under which secondary school graduates in Hong Kong may receive a means-tested subsidy of up to HK$15,000 a year in order to study in selected universities in the mainland, in an apparent effort to channel some of our demand for university places into institutions across the border.

Unfortunately, public response to the MUSSS has been lukewarm. Last year the Education Bureau received less than 500 applications, accounting for only one percent of the 61,000 students sitting for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (DSE) in 2015, suggesting that the overwhelming majority of our teenagers are not in favor of the idea of pursuing higher education in the mainland. Simply put, the MUSSS is a complete flop.

It really boggles the mind that, in face of the serious shortage of university places for local students in Hong Kong, our chief executive had proposed in his recent Policy Address that we should spend more to subsidize foreign students from “One Belt One Road” countries to study in Hong Kong, rather than helping our own kids to study abroad. Is it really that difficult for top officials to get their priorities right?

I believe if our government is really sincere in helping youngsters further their education, it must get to the root of the problem and commit a lot more resources to providing more formal undergraduate places.

The government can also draw experience from its Hong Kong Scholarship for Excellence Scheme and assist more students in pursuing studies abroad.

What’s the point of spending so much time and effort to toe Beijing’s line and pitch the “One Belt One Road” plan if our government won’t even take care of our own kids?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Graduate, Master of Cultural Studies Programme, Lingnan University

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