Diplomas pave road of reform
Hong Kong has embarked on the most ambitious education reform programme in its history - ditching the high-stakes A-level exam for a broad-based diploma. And as government and aided schools roll out the three-year curriculum leading to the first Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams in 2012, the International Baccalaureate Diploma has eclipsed the British A-level as the main qualification in the international sector.
All final-year students across the English Schools Foundation's five secondary schools took the IB Diploma for the first time last year, and the vast majority of independent schools have adopted IB programmes as their curriculum of choice.
For parents used to the certainties of three A-levels as a route to university for academically oriented students, the new exams pose a conundrum.
What standard do students need to achieve to get into good universities in Hong Kong and around the world? How do the standards of the two exams compare? Are they easier or harder than A-levels? Which one gives a better chance of getting to university?
Figures released by the ESF on university destinations of 710 students who took the IB Diploma last year provide some useful indicators on how it performs as a matriculation exam. They show that more of the IB students got into top-ranked universities worldwide than did ESF A-level students in 2008.
Among last year's IB students, 136 got into top-30 universities and 265 got into the top 50 in the Times Higher Education/QS World University Rankings, compared to 109 and 249, respectively, for the A-level students.
In Britain, where the A-level is the main entrance exam, the number of ESF students who got into top-10 universities in The Times Good Universities Guide - a league table of universities in Britain - fell by seven to 95.
The number of students admitted to top-30 universities in The Times' ranking also dropped - by five to 210 - but institutions in the top 50 took 35 more ESF students than in 2008, admitting a total of 255.
ESF education adviser Chris Durbin said: 'Two-thirds of ESF students who applied to the UK got into top-30 universities. That is in line with previous performance of ESF students taking A-levels. And I believe the small decline in the number of students going to the top 10 universities in the UK last year is not to do with the switch to the IB Diploma.
'A decrease of seven students is not significant.'
Most universities in Hong Kong set grade 24 in the IB Diploma - the 'pass rate' - as the lowest offer score, with 45 the highest score demanded by University of Hong Kong and 40 the top score for Chinese University. But Hong Kong University of Science and Technology made offers of 30 to 33.
Leading research universities in Britain's Russell Group required offer grades ranging from 40 to 42 for Oxbridge, to 37 to 39 for the London School of Economics and 24 to 36 for Leeds.
Durbin said the offer grades required depended on the popularity of both the institution and the subject, with the latter being the most important factor.
'It is a market-driven system,' he said. 'The more demand there is, the higher the point score that the universities will require. Medicine and law will be very high, but engineering and accounting will be lower.'
A broad picture of the Hong Kong diploma grades required to get into degree programmes and institutions is not yet available, as many universities are still deciding on their admission requirements. But the Education Bureau and Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority have been working hard to gain recognition for the Hong Kong diploma at home and abroad.
In January, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung announced some common threshold requirements for admission to the city's eight publicly funded tertiary institutions after bureau talks with university heads.
Suen said students attaining Level 3 for Chinese and English, and Level 2 for maths and liberal studies - the core subjects of the Hong Kong diploma - would be eligible for admission to undergraduate programmes.
The Heads of Universities Committee (HUCOM) confirmed that its eight members would consider applications from students who met the common requirements on the core subjects, but also stressed that universities would set minimum levels for one or two elective subjects and could also stipulate further requirements.
But HKU registrar Henry Wai Wing-kun said: 'HKU is going to decide its own minimum eligibility requirements for the core subjects, although we will bear in mind HUCOM's set of common requirements. We plan to make a decision on it later this year.'
In February, Britain's university entrance system UCAS published its rating of the Hong Kong diploma against other exams, including British A-levels and the IB Diploma. The UCAS 'tariff' is widely used by admissions tutors globally to assess the standard of unfamiliar qualifications.
UCAS gave the Hong Kong diploma 120 points for a Level 5 in one subject - equal to an A grade in the British A-level - and 130 points for Level 5*. It is reserving judgment on the diploma's highest subject score of Level 5** until after the first results are released in 2012.
Three A-levels at grade A - the typical minimum requirement for admission to top British universities - are worth 360 points in the tariff. A new A* grade in the British A-level being introduced this year is worth 140 points.
A student who gained top scores in the four core subjects of the Hong Kong diploma plus three electives would net 780 points in the UCAS tariff - more than double the points for three A-levels at grade A.
UCAS also rates the Hong Kong diploma more highly than the IB Diploma, which is given 720 points for its highest score of 45 and 130 points for its highest subject grade - equal to the second-highest grade in the Hong Kong qualification.
But UCAS international officer Irene Finlayson warned that using the tariff to directly compare matriculation exams was misguided, as it was merely a guideline for universities, which decided their own admission criteria.
'Is it really valid to compare a stand-alone A-level with one subject that forms part of a whole school-leaving diploma?' she said. 'The two qualifications are structured differently and that should be taken into account.'
The bureau and the exams authority have sent delegations to destinations including Canada, Britain and Australia to promote the Hong Kong diploma among universities and accreditation bodies. The response in all three countries has been positive, with the diploma widely regarded as meeting the eligibility threshold for university entrance, according to officials.
Katherine Forestier, director of education and science services with the British Council Hong Kong, said: 'Based on the UCAS tariff, at least two Level 3 grades should fulfil minimum admissions requirements to UK universities, equivalent to two Grade Es at A-level.
'However, universities will set their own requirements similar to what they ask at A-level, with most looking at Levels 4 and 5. In addition, they would also need students to fulfil minimum matriculation requirements in maths, normally equivalent to Grade C in the GCSE, and [in] English.'
Oxford University's director of undergraduate admissions, Mike Nicholson, said its education committee had agreed that a Level 5 in an elective subject of the Hong Kong diploma was equal to an A in the British A-level. For maths, students would need a Level 5* in the core component and 5 in the extended paper.
However, Oxford would review its British A-level requirements this summer in the light of the new A* grade.