Casting their nets for new recruits
Annie Yu had never thought she would have to shower with 100 classmates in a packed university bath house. She didn't imagine, either, that she'd be sharing a cramped dormitory room with three other classmates.
But those weren't even the biggest challenges she faced while attending Peking University. The worst, she says, were the classes in Maoism and Marxism. 'It was really a shock,' the 23-year-old Hongkonger said. 'We never studied so much about socialism and Mao Zedong's ideas in Hong Kong.'
She says it took her more than six months to adjust to campus life at Beida, as the university is nicknamed, after starting there in 2005.
She was one of only three graduates from St Mary's Canossian College to head to the mainland for university. Relatively few Hongkongers, only about 525 a year, attend mainland schools for undergraduate study. The mainland's elite institutions are trying to change that through stepped-up recruiting.
That will be a hard sell, says Dr Zou Chong-hua, division head of the Beijing-Hong Kong Academic Exchange Centre, a non-profit Hong Kong agency that helps mainland universities recruit Hong Kong students.
The level of teaching at Hong Kong universities is high, Zou noted. Besides, Hong Kong students get little exposure to mainland schools and they have traditionally opted for universities in Britain and other developed countries.
Wah Yan College career mistress Ng Hing-wah says only one student from Wah Yan has gone to a mainland university in the last 10 years.
'We are an English-medium school,' she said. 'Our students prefer to learn in an English environment. Our students also want to study in places where there's a free flow of information.'
That one student, who went to Jilin University's journalism school, failed to complete her studies. She returned to Hong Kong a year later.
She was 'frustrated by the lack of freedom of speech there', Ng said. She sat her A-levels and got into a local journalism programme, instead.
But things are changing. China now has the world's second-largest economy. Its robust growth is a driver for the region, particularly for Hong Kong. More students have begun to look north when shopping for tertiary or post-graduate education.
Zou says Hong Kong students who want to do postgraduate study on the mainland are usually those who have jobs in the financial, legal and Chinese medicine sectors. They mainly want to improve their China-specific expertise or connections. Or they love Chinese history or literature.
'So mainland universities are unlikely mainstream options for Hong Kong students for the time being,' Zou said. Yet top mainland universities have stepped up their recruitment efforts.
Yu decided to go to Peking University after it offered her a scholarship worth 30,000 yuan (HK$35,330) a year. She also wanted to get to know the country better and see the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
'Some of my classmates might have thought I was crazy because many of them didn't even consider Beida [as a choice for a university degree] at the time because of its lack of international profile,' Yu said.
But she says Beida and other top mainland universities are becoming more international, though the English-speaking skills of lecturers need to improve.
But Lik Hang-tsui had a hard time deciding whether to accept an offer to study history at Beida in 2005. Like many of his peers, he worried about a possible lack of world-view at mainland universities, the standard of English teaching and ideological brainwashing. He also thought it would be tough to learn Putonghua and live with classmates from very different backgrounds.
Lik, who graduated from Baptist Lui Ming Choi Secondary School in 2005, said he did a lot of homework on Beida, even visiting the university, before he decided. 'But when I look back four years later, I feel all the concerns were unnecessary,' he said. The degree from Beida had really set his sails on his present course. He's now doing a doctorate in Chinese studies at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.
Zou says mainland universities have come a long way in terms of campus infrastructure and resources. But what distinguishes them is the way they are run. Mainland universities are overseen by the Ministry of Education right down to the level of campus management, he says. And the top-down control and lack of input from academics is worsening. 'For one thing, I've asked many mainland professors to name a good university president. Few can name one,' he says, 'but there were a number of them who were highly regarded before.'
These stories are edited versions of articles that appeared in the Sunday Morning Post on January 23, 2011