How our education system is deepening the wealth gap

August 22, 2015 08:07
Only 18 percent of students who attend traditional schools gain admission to local universities through the joint university programs admission system. Photo: HKEJ

International Baccalaureate (IB), the Swiss-based education foundation, has published its exam results worldwide.

The results show 27 of its Hong Kong students scored full marks (45 points), accounting for 17 percent of perfect scores.

Many of the Hong Kong top scorers plan to enrol in local universities, which is a mixed blessing because there's an upside and a downside to such a decision.

The upside is that Hong Kong is the cradle of some of the best students in the world.

The downside?

Traditional primary and secondary schools provide basic education for average students while some prestigious schools under the direct subsidy scheme (DSS) and international schools offer “high-quality” education to the children of the rich.

Students who attend traditional schools are required to take the Hong Kong diploma of secondary education examination.

Only 18 percent gain admission to local universities through the joint university programs admission system (JUPAS).

By contrast, students who attend a DSS or international school can choose between the IB and GCE A-level programs and either study abroad or enroll in a local university through non-JUPAS channels.

Indeed, it would be a good idea for the Education Bureau to establish additional channels such as a non-JUPAS mechanism to broaden our student base for higher education.

Those who are admitted to local universities through the non-JUPAS system are predominantly DSS or international school students from upper-class families, suggesting this method is only for the privileged few.

Given that there are only on average 15,000 undergraduate places available in Hong Kong’s universities each year, competition is fierce.

And the fact that a significant number of those places are reserved for non-JUPAS students only exacerbates the scarcity, hindering the upward mobility of our society.

Every year, about 2,500 students are admitted to local universities through the non-JUPAS channel, or about 15 percent of all admissions.

On top of that, 4 percent of the university places are reserved for foreign students.

In other words, students from average working-class families who attend conventional schools and who make up the vast majority of the student population, can only compete with one another for the remaining 81 percent of university places.

As a result, as many as 15,000 teenagers who fulfilled the basic first-year admission requirements are denied admission each year and have to turn to either private universities or self-funded undergraduate programs of the eight local universities.

If the government wants to broaden the student base of our universities, it should open extra places for non-JUPAS students, not merely take them from the undergraduate allocation.

How can the government justify taking away an education opportunity from the average student and giving it to someone from a DSS or international school who can afford a university education anywhere?

The policy only serves to deepen conflict between students from different family backgrounds and further widen the wealth gap.

The Education Bureau argues that non-JUPAS admission is not limited to wealthy students and applies to those who finished associate degrees and want to pursue further study.

Competition among non-JUPAS students for university places is no less intense than that among JUPAS students, it says, citing 50,000 to 60,000 non-JUPAS applicants each year.

That students who have finished associate degrees can apply for university places through the non-JUPAS system is not the issue.

What prompts public concern is that the system gives students from rich families an unfair advantage.

Also, the non-JUPAS allocation has given rise to another issue -- the number of non-JUPAS students in some faculties is so large it's simply out of proportion.

For example, among students of the law faculty in the University of Hong Kong (HKU), up to 30 percent were admitted outside the JUPAS system.

Although HKU has tackled the issue and capped non-JUPAS admissions, the imbalance remains in the most prominent faculties.

It's okay for universities to admit the best students.

The problem is when the system gives the best education to those who can afford it, rather than those who deserve it because they're smart and hardworking.

Doesn't that tell us something about the problem with our society?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 15.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]


Committee member of Education Convergence