Diverse student body a boon for universities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 August, 2006, 12:00am

The community has been so used to hearing complaints about the quality of our education system that it's an all-too-rare pleasure to celebrate some good news. A decade ago, there weren't enough students passing exams to fill all the places in our universities. Pass rates have gone up sharply. So, too, have the number of students who didn't come out of the local school system but want to go to one of our universities. Now, only two out of three local students who qualify are able to secure a place.

This phenomenon of increased competition is disappointing news for students who passed their A-level examinations but didn't get a university place. But the higher scores needed to get into university, as well as the increased number of students from the mainland or abroad, augurs well for Hong Kong. After all, for more than a decade we have spent lavishly on universities with too few results. The fact that leading international investment banks, for example, shun graduates from even the best local universities for all but the most menial jobs attests to our failure. The cross-pollination that comes from having a more diverse student body is probably the best chance for improving that situation. In 1996, of 30,094 candidates who took the A-level examinations, only 13,810 achieved the minimum university admission requirements. The number was well short of the 14,500 first-year first-degree places available. Anecdotal evidence was that as the handover in 1997 loomed, many families opted to send their children overseas.

The shortfall prompted some faculties with insufficient enrolments, which were fearful of being closed down, to bend the rules by admitting students who barely made the grade, including those who failed English or Chinese. This sparked a public outcry against the institutions for compromising their standards. In response, the government had to step in to ensure quality by threatening to withdraw funding for unqualified students admitted by the universities.

Ten years on, the universities are in a much better position. The number of available first-year places remains 14,500, but as many as 16,302 A-level candidates met the minimum requirements for university admission. Yesterday, the universities announced that they had accepted only 11,294. Thousands of applicants who have achieved just the minimum grades have been rejected.

Of the remaining places, 418 will be filled by Form Five students on account of their outstanding scores in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination under the Early Admissions Scheme. The scheme was conceived to encourage some of our best students to study at local universities instead of going overseas. The remainder of the places, about 19 per cent of the total, will be filled by local students who have received their education in international schools or overseas. They tend to be top performers who have opted to stay here - or have returned now that Hong Kong's future looks bright.

Besides, our universities have also seen a drastic increase in their intake of non-local students, primarily from the mainland. The generous provision of scholarships and the privilege of being able to work here on graduation have proved attractive to mainland students. Many of them have shunned admission to top institutions at home in favour of studying in the nation's most cosmopolitan city.

It may well be that Hong Kong's top students still opt to go overseas. But our universities should be pleased that they have not been completely deprived of good material. Although the majority of our university students still come from local schools, many more have roots or experiences outside Hong Kong. That should augur well for the city's future as it seeks to enhance its competitiveness as an international financial centre. A city that aims to be a world-class metropolis cannot afford to have inward-looking universities with a parochial student population.