Pursuing excellence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong parents bent on sending children to the best US colleges must have noticed from reports coming out of America that this year has been the most competitive ever in admissions. All the Ivy Leagues (except Yale) and their peer institutions reported their lowest acceptance rates, with Columbia at 8.9 per cent. Experts attributed the record numbers of applicants to demographic bulge, greater interest in attending elite institutions and more multiple applications. Not only are the record number of applications staggering, stories of exemplary students with perfect test scores rejected by top colleges are reverberating throughout the US.

The March madness of college-hunting, and the disappointment at rejection are also played out in Asian cities such as Hong Kong, with a reputation for demanding good education. As is well known, much as our local universities are unanimous in seeking to promote the city as a tertiary educational hub, Hong Kong's middle class, including civil servants, university professors and staff, professionals, managers, and our own education chiefs, have long had a tradition of sending their children to the best colleges and universities in the US or Britain. What do parents look for in the top colleges and what do they look for in the applicants?

Much of the growing interest in elite education is driven by globalisation, and awareness of the widening wealth gap associated with it. Increasingly, parents and smart students realise that to thrive, you need skills that are global, not parochial. More people recognise that the knowledge gap will inevitably translate into the income gap. As our universities strive to sell their services as a regional educational hub (targeting the mainland), we are well advised to ask ourselves what we are selling, and what we, as aspiring middle-class parents, look for in overseas elite universities. The message from the latest admission policies at top US colleges is clear: they look beyond test scores to choose students who have distinguished themselves in addition to academic excellence. They show a passion for learning or doing something they are interested in, a commitment to excellence, an ability to grow and develop their capabilities in the face of the most challenging circumstances, leadership, and an inquisitive and outgoing personality.

No doubt as a result of such policies, these academic powerhouses give priority to candidates who are first-generation college applicants; from remote countries or regions, or from poor or broken families. Top institutions are emphatically tempering their elitism by providing greater opportunity to the less privileged, and fostering greater diversity and a more globalised environment.

Undeniably, our universities are spot on in detecting a golden business opportunity in providing much-needed educational services to our neighbours. As one university president has said, Hong Kong is well placed to provide training in hotel management, catering, or legal and accounting services. The list can go on. As a sophisticated business city we have a lot of useful and practical educational services to sell. This drive, however, begs the question whether our top educators see education only as a business opportunity, or whether they are equally imbued of larger, fundamental educational goals.

I am loath to conclude that this is where local and leading universities overseas part company. All our universities have their educational goals on their websites, yet we are not hearing enough about education as enabling our innate intellectual, academic, social and cultural capabilities, and as building our character and our ability to continue to grow and prosper in today's complex and rapidly changing society.

For too long, an articulation of our fundamental educational goals has been missing from the local scene. Until a clearer, deliverable vision emerges, I am afraid our middle class will have to continue to trot the globe in search of educational institutions, which set the achievement of excellence as their goal.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute