University challenge

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am

They're the holy grail for the ambitious, the talented and the driven. Steeped in centuries-old tradition and considered bywords for academic excellence, Britain's Oxford and Cambridge universities have their pick of the creme de la creme from the thousands of students who cross their fingers and post an application from across the globe.

Countless hours of study, nail-biting exams and probing interviews must be overcome before students can even think about entering their hallowed halls.

This intensely competitive process has done little to dim the appeal of the institutions that have earned the moniker 'Oxbridge', but it appears Hong Kong students are finding it tougher to get a foot in the door.

Last year, about 15 per cent of all international students who applied went on to study at Oxford and Cambridge.

This week the English Schools Foundation gave its students a head start with a two-day workshop offering advice on applications, exams and interview technique.

'Anecdotal information suggests it's getting tougher,' said Chris Forse, head of ESF parent and student services. 'I think the schools will say it's more difficult to get in now than it was at the turn of the century.'

Last year the ESF received seven offers from Oxford and Cambridge and four of those went to students at Island School. The school's former university adviser, Kevin Lester, said the number of applicants had increased in recent years but the number of students being accepted had remained constant.

Mr Forse said the rise in the number of mainland applicants had had a knock-on effect for Hong Kong students.

'There's no doubt that the rise in mainland applications has put pressure on universities generally for places,' he said. 'Of course we don't know whether colleges anywhere in the world have any ethnic concept of quotas. Most colleges would say they don't, but we hear through the grapevine that that's the case.'

The number of Li Po Chun United World College students being accepted into Oxbridge has fluctuated in recent years. Last year the school had three offers from Cambridge and two from Oxford. In 2005-6 there was one offer from Cambridge and six from Oxford.

'It fluctuates much more with Oxford and Cambridge from year to year than it does with any other school in the US or the UK,' said Steve Udy, the school's director of university guidance. 'In general it does seem to be tougher now than five or six years ago.'

While the breakdown varies each year, about half of the school's graduating class usually goes to the US, about 12 per cent each to Britain, Canada, and Hong Kong universities while the remainder return to their home countries.

United World College students are eligible for financial aid in the US, which may partly explain the strong preference for American universities.

Mr Udy said it was easier for students to get accepted into top universities in the US compared with those in Britain.

'I don't know for sure why, but certainly the US schools do look at a broader range of criteria for assessing the students,' he said, adding that some courses such as medicine at Cambridge had a restricted number of places for international students.

The timing of university offers might also contribute to students favouring the US.

Mr Udy said students were usually given an offer and required to make a deposit at US universities by the end of April.

This contrasted with the British process, where students were often made conditional offers dependent on exam results. Li Po Chun students did not receive their International Baccalaureate results until July.

'I tell the students it's an insurance policy,' Mr Udy said of the US offers. 'If you really are waiting on a medicine offer in Hong Kong or law in Britain, you do need to have a back-up.'

But Diocesan Boys School's dean of students, Mark Rosario, believes a more local factor may be at play. Historically, DBS used to have a student accepted into Oxford or Cambridge every year or so but had not had a student accepted for about five years.

Mr Rosario attributed the decline to Hong Kong universities' early admissions scheme, which he said enticed high achievers to leave after Form Six, making them ineligible to apply to Oxbridge.

'Faced with a choice of either, do we accept an offer to a local university right now or do we wait another year and try our chances with Oxford or Cambridge? It's a big risk to take. What has happened with our best students, if they wait to go abroad, is that they've looked to the US instead of Britain,' he said.

Mr Rosario said Ivy League institutions in the US such as Harvard and Stanford would accept students after Form Six.

The trend for students to head to the US was also evident at St Paul's Co-educational College.

Deborah Cremins, the school's counsellor for further studies, said the vast majority of students who applied to overseas universities chose the US.

'Quite honestly, Oxford and Cambridge aren't really on our radar,' she said.

Like Mr Rosario, she said students opted for the US because they were able to enrol after Form Six. 'If they do stay (at school) for A-levels they tend to stay in Hong Kong for university,' she said.

Last year a St Paul's student who left school after Form Six went to Oxford after spending a year at the University of Hong Kong in the early admissions scheme.

An Oxford spokeswoman said applying to the university had become more competitive because the number of overall applications had increased by 43 per cent over the last decade, while the number of available places remained roughly the same at about 3,200.

This year 13,639 students applied for undergraduate study compared with about 9,500 in 1997. The spokeswoman denied the university had an admissions quota.

'Applicants compete with each other in a gathered field, and those who are best qualified and have the greatest potential to benefit from our courses will be given a place. There is no quota for international or indeed any other type of applicant,' she said in a statement.

The spokeswoman said Oxford usually made conditional offers at the end of December or early January.

Cambridge's director of admissions, Geoff Parks, said competition for places had become tougher as the number of applicants increased.

'There's been a huge increase from China in particular and generally from other places,' he said, adding that Cambridge had received more applications from European Union students since their fees were made equal to those paid by British students.

Dr Parks said there was no quota for international students in all subjects except medicine, where overseas students can only constitute 7.5 per cent.

'The nationality of individual students is not considered a factor at all,' he said.

Dr Parks said overseas applications tended to be of 'more variable' quality than local applications, a factor he attributed to international students being less aware of admissions requirements.

With the top 20 British universities introducing a common admissions exam in 2008-9, Mr Forse said he believed Hong Kong students would have to be more aware of entry requirements.

'The danger here is being isolated, not being aware of what the latest fads and fashions are. We really need to be savvy to it because it's much more competitive,' he said, adding that a 'cottage industry' of Oxford preparation courses had emerged in Britain.

This year the ESF provided schools with additional funding to employ higher education counsellors.

The British Council's director of education, Katherine Forestier, said there would be a number of seminars covering application procedures for British universities in coming weeks, including an Oxford seminar on October 22.

'We are aware of these issues and we're stepping up our support for both the Hong Kong side for students and teachers and the British side by alerting them to the issues that Hong Kong students face, particularly when they're holding multiple offers,' she said.