Concerns dismissed over inequality in Cambridge scholarship
The founder of a prestigious scholarship fund set up to help Hong Kong students attend Britain's Cambridge University has moved to quash concerns that places given to students from wealthy backgrounds are costing poorer applicants a chance.
The Prince Philip Scholarship carries a non-means-tested award of GBP2,500 (HK$27,700) per annum and a return air ticket to London. Scholars in need of more financial support can claim up to the full costs of tuition and subsistence after a means test. The university's tuition fees alone cost GBP10,000 minimum annually.
Worries were raised last week that children of families with powerful or wealthy connections have been successful, despite a belief that the awards were intended for less well-off students. One of the six recipients this year is the daughter of Hutchison Whampoa's managing director, Canning Fok.
But the founder of the Prince Philip Scholarship scheme, banker and legislator David Li Kwok-po, said the worries reflected a 'complete misunderstanding' of the scheme.
'There is no shortcut. The awards are all given on the basis of merit,' he said. The question of whether poorer or better-off students won scholarships was irrelevant, he said, as background was not part of the criteria.
One Cambridge alumnus, now working in the financial sector in Hong Kong, wrote to the South China Morning Post pointing out the concerns. 'Over the years, a number of scholarships have been granted, surprisingly, to the sons and daughters of some of the wealthiest and most influential families in Hong Kong,' she said.
'Do they need the cash award and return ticket? I would feel cheated if I had donated to the scheme thinking I was helping some underprivileged but talented students.
'Are some genuinely needy and deserving students being denied the opportunity?'
She cited the introduction to a brochure, Friends of Cambridge University in Hong Kong, which said the group has in the last 18 years, partly through the scholarship, 'extended that privilege [of studying at Cambridge] to many talented young men and women from Hong Kong who would otherwise not have the opportunity or the financial means to study at the University of Cambridge'.
She expressed worry that the meaning of the scholarship would be lost if places that could have gone to the less privileged were taken up by the rich.
One Prince Philip scholar from the 1980s said she had always had the impression that the scholarship was intended to give priority to people from poorer families.
'Those who are much better off financially could apply through normal means,' noted the former scholar, who applied on the recommendation of her secondary school principal.
Mr Li, a Cambridge mathematics graduate, emphasised this week that a selection panel including one or two Cambridge professors, two past scholars, and local academics - such as Rosie Young Tse-tse, honorary professor at Hong Kong University's Department of Medicine and former acting dean of student affairs at the university - is responsible for interviewing shortlisted candidates.
About 100 applications are received each year, with between three and seven scholars chosen. Mr Li said that the panel had to do a lot of work to arrange the scholarships every year. 'We liaise with individual colleges at Cambridge to see how many and what places are available.'
One explanation for the confusion may be a high number of scholars from less well-off backgrounds in the first years of the awards. Early recipients included Wong Yan-lung, whose father used to be an ice-cream vendor. The scheme started in 1982.
Mr Wong, now a barrister, remains grateful to Mr Li and this year helped other alumni to publish the Friends brochure.
'We feel duty-bound to help publicise the scheme. I would never have thought of going to Cambridge if it was not for the scholarship. We hope to establish stronger links among the returnees,' he said.
Although the scheme is advertised in newspapers, it may not be as well understood by many, as Mr Li or Mr Wong hoped. In its early years, application forms were only sent to 20 elite schools, before the number gradually increased. This year is the first time they have been distributed to all secondary schools using a list obtained from the Education Department.
Mr Li agrees that applications from international schools - whose students are usually from financially better-off families - have increased in number in recent years. Dr Will Ng Wai-yin, a former scholar and panel member, maintains the scholarship is intended for top-notch students deserving to be honoured. 'People's misunderstanding of it being for those lacking the financial means comes from the fact that over the years quite a number of recipients have been from families that are not well-off; people who could not have gone to Cambridge without the financial help.'
Professor Rosie Young also defends the scheme, saying the scholars chosen not only excelled in their studies - with As at the A-level examination - but also had a good track record in extra-curricular activities and performed well during the interview.
Meanwhile, competition for scholarships to other British universities could become tougher as they have become better known to local students. Student exchanges officer at the British Council, Sandy Lai Ka-pui, said Hong Kong remains a key market for British universities even after the handover. The British and Foreign Commonwealth Office has increased its funding for Council-administered Chevening scholarships to help more people pursue postgraduate studies at a range of universities in Britain. There are 50 Chevening scholars this year, up from about 30 in 1997.
In Canada, the University of Toronto offers a number of merit-based only scholarships to domestic and international students. But since 1995, it has been offering means-tested scholarships to five students from Hong Kong each year.
'The mandate of the scholarships is to provide an opportunity for students who otherwise would not go abroad to study,' said Jeremy Woodall, programme manager for international alumni and development.
It was meant for people with real needs, even though tuition fees in Canada are already significantly lower than that in the US and UK, he said. A year's tuition at the university costs HK$50,000 for international students.
Director of Studies of Medicine at Cambridge, Dr James Hickson, will address questions about the Prince Philip Scholarship at an open forum at the Chinese International School, Braemar Hill, next Saturday.