Schools for good citizens of the future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 July, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong's eight universities recently sent 3,000 letters to prospective undergraduate students on the mainland - and doubled the number of new recruits from across the border from last year.

This huge rise suggests that Hong Kong is increasingly becoming a hub of higher education in the region, attracting the best students from the north. Of the top nine students in the National University Entrance Examination (NUEE) in Guangzhou, six decided to enrol in universities here instead of at top mainland schools like Tsinghua and Peking universities.

The mainland media has paid a lot of attention to how Hong Kong universities did their recruiting. Unlike mainland schools, which use the NUEE scores as the sole basis for admission, the majority of their Hong Kong counterparts selected students based on a combination of their NUEE results, a written English test and a face-to-face interview. The goal was to test the prospective students' breadth of knowledge, emotional maturity, communications skills and social awareness.

The basis for university admission is an issue not just for educators; rather, it has deep social ramifications. Higher education has been immensely expanded on the mainland in recent years, with current enrollment reaching 23 million. But this only accounts for 21 per cent of all high-school graduates. Compared to the United States, where at least 70 per cent of graduates from secondary schools enter universities, higher education on the mainland remains the privilege of a few.

Severe competition for university entrance has had negative effects on learning and teaching in secondary, and even primary, schools. To prepare for the NUEE, teachers and students spend the bulk of their time on exam drills and quizzes, adding extra tutorial hours to already-packed course schedules.

As a result, some students admitted only on their NUEE scores tend to be bookworms, knowing and caring little about society at large. Their early education hardly gave them a chance to acquire a reflective approach to knowledge or a sense of social commitment.

In a recent tour of a government-owned nursing home with a group of Hong Kong and mainland students, I was taken aback by the reactions of some students. They were shocked by the poor conditions and the hardships faced by residents, as if they were seeing such things for the first time. These were social-work students - who are supposedly committed to the underprivileged - so their naivety is a cause for concern.

Can today's universities, both on the mainland and Hong Kong, produce the kinds of young people who will serve the needs of our communities?

Entrance selection is the first step in forming the character of university graduates. If extracurricular activities - such as the number of hours spent in community services or internships in non-governmental organisations - could be taken into account, then university students would be different from what we see today.

Hong Kong universities have set a good example in changing their admissions policies. But more could be done to recruit candidates with a strong sense of social commitment and reflective minds. Our schools should aspire to create an educational hub producing future leaders, not future elites.

Kitty Poon is a research fellow at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit