HKDSE - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

Piling on the pressure for exam reform

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 November, 2010, 12:00am

Mainland universities have officially opened their arms to Hong Kong students. Instead of having to sit for the national college entrance exam, or gaokao, a test infamous for its competitiveness and overemphasis on rote memorisation, Hong Kong students can now enter the likes of Peking University, Tsinghua and Fudan with just their Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) exam scores. Indeed, the recent development brings up many interesting questions, the first of which is: what does this mean for students on the mainland?

Since the late 1990s, mainland students have flocked to universities all over the world. In the 2009-2010 academic year, there were 128,000 studying in the United States alone, a 30 per cent increase from the previous year.

This makes China the biggest exporter of international students to America, surpassing India. The trend applies to nations like Britain and Australia as well. For typical mainland students, going overseas to study often puts a huge mental and financial strain on their families. Yet, the alternative - staying in China - is even more difficult.

Most Chinese students head abroad to escape the gaokao; the gaokao competition is so intense that there have been reports of suicide and depression.

So, will mainland students resent the Hong Kong students who get admitted? Will even more mainland students head overseas? Will universities in the West be equipped to handle the potential swarm? And how will this, in turn, affect Hongkongers also vying for seats in the US and Britain?

Perhaps a more interesting question, though, is what does the acceptance of HKDSE on the mainland mean for the future of the gaokao? In a recent article in Time magazine, the gaokao was labelled 'the most pressure-packed examination in the world'. It is feared not only because of the fierce competition but also because of the heavy focus on memorisation. It is still primarily a knowledge-based exam. The HKDSE, on the other hand, will be more inquiry based, with a liberal studies component that emphasises critical reasoning and discussion of current events.

If the Ministry of Education's move to accept the HKDSE as equivalent to the gaokao leads to reforms in the gaokao, this would be a very positive and long overdue change. The ministry has said the current gaokao needs reform.

Finally, the ministry said that the new move would bring the two systems closer together and boost education exchange. But for genuine education exchange, it needs to work both ways. Mainland students still have a difficult time getting into universities in Hong Kong.

Offering our students more choice and having more educational exchanges are wonderful developments. But we should be careful not to do this at the expense of other students. Indeed, there is a lot to learn from such educational exchanges - if both Hong Kong and the mainland are willing to learn it.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.