Integrate to educate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 May, 2007, 12:00am

Few people would disagree that building Hong Kong into a 'regional education hub' makes eminent business sense. With the mainland economy continuing to charge forward, China's hungry companies are woefully short of trained professionals in management, business, legal, accounting and financial services to fill their corporate ladders. Hong Kong's universities - offering a more international environment and located in one of the world's most advanced business and commercial centres - are well placed to provide the educational programmes that will produce the manpower required. But does this make good educational sense?

I would argue that it does. Raising or removing the ceiling on the admission of mainland Chinese or overseas undergraduates to Hong Kong universities would help our city's education in more ways than one: it would broaden the 'gene pool' of students; expose Hong Kong students to a more international and culturally diverse environment; create more competition for local students; and give them more opportunities to practise their English with English-language speakers. From an educational point of view, it would be just what we need to counter complacency and provincialism among our students.

I would also argue that such a policy makes good sense for our society. Though mostly Cantonese, Hong Kong has always benefited from the influx of immigrants, whether they be Shanghai's capitalists, who helped build the first generation of our industries, or overseas residents who brought a broad, international perspective. A tertiary educational policy to facilitate the intake of the brightest and best from diverse sources is in line with general policy to maintain the openness of our society.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a case in point. An MIT faculty member estimates that although there is a roughly 9 per cent quota for undergraduates, there is no foreign student quota at the graduate level and they account for 40 per cent of this student body. More than one-third of MIT's faculty were born abroad. A recent study found that of the hi-tech and engineering start-ups in the past 10 years in the US, 28 per cent of the founders were born outside America. This example reinforces the benefits of openness.

Yet there are no lack of hurdles, including the funding issue. In spite of the openness at graduate level, US universities have official or unofficial quotas on foreign undergraduates. As federal funds may not be used for non-citizens, state universities must charge foreign students much higher tuition fees.

Although many private universities have a 'need-blind' admission policy - when an applicant's financial situation is not a factor - they have to be ultraselective in admitting needy foreign undergraduates where they have to apply their own funds; hence the admission quotas. Hong Kong's admissions ceiling on non-local undergraduates, because of the need to give priority to subsidising local students, is not without justification or precedent.

Given the constraints on using public funds, our universities could charge higher tuition and other fees for non-local students, or raise more funds for this purpose. The resource problems do not stop at tuition subsidies: there is the need for more dormitories for non-local students. But these problems cannot be resolved without more imaginative solutions.

If a more open policy were adopted in undergraduate admissions, the reluctance of local students to interact with their non-local counterparts must be resolved in order to maximise the benefits. Our universities have many programmes fostering a more international environment, but the feedback from many is that local students are reluctant to leave their comfort zone to mingle with non-locals. This reluctance is greatest where speaking English is involved.

A more open admission policy would not foster a broader outlook if separate communities of undergraduates emerge as a result. Breaking down barriers and encouraging inquisitiveness is no less important than resolving the resource problems.

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