At top universities, only original thinkers need apply

Philip Yeung says Asia's exam focus is the wrong strategy for an unpredictable future when top universities seek only out-of-the-box thinkers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 12:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 12:11am

Some of us recoil in disgust at local tutorial centres drilling toddlers for admission to kindergartens. Such questions are, of course, nothing new in educational institutions, even at the elite UK universities Oxford and Cambridge. But there is a world of difference. Theirs are questions you can't drill for.

To gain an Oxbridge education, you must first run the gauntlet of their dizzyingly difficult admissions questions. Would, for example, any university in Asia ask applicants to "describe a spoon to a Martian" or ask them, "Are you a novel or a poem?" - both cited as representative examples by the famous author and BBC Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves.

I remember Professor Andrew Hamilton, the Oxford vice-chancellor, telling a Hong Kong audience that an applicant for an engineering programme might be asked by an Oxford recruiter what he thought of inflation in 17th century Holland.

These apparently nonsensical questions are designed to separate the wheat from the chaff. What is wheat in exam-crazy Asia, however, may be chaff to curiosity-driven Cambridge or Oxford. Possession of knowledge, prized in Asia, is passé in elite global universities. According to people in the know, they care much more whether the candidates can think their way out of the unfamiliar or unexpected. In this encounter, the ability to think on your feet, as well as poise under pressure, is prized over a factually pedestrian reply. A sense of fun and a non-conformist attitude are also highly desirable.

Mainland students are famous for being fearless exam warriors. This partially explains why they consistently outperform their Western peers in Pisa tests. Elite Hong Kong students are not far behind. What they both lack is the free-flowing and wide-ranging intellect sought by Oxbridge.

As summer approaches, graduates are out job hunting in earnest. Many hiring questions are so predictable that job-seekers are often pre-armed with the safe answers. But giving the right answers is not the same as being the right match for a job. Employers should borrow from the Oxbridge trick of asking wacky questions. If you can disorient candidates, you might just discover the real person.

In the global economy, many jobs can be offshored, replaced by a machine or are destined for obsolescence. Only jobs calling for creativity are safe. But our education system, stuck in the rote learning rut, is well behind the curve in incubating original thinkers.

The Oxbridge admissions questions have a timely message: prepare minds to face an unpredictable future. Drilling little kids is positively anti-educational and anti-life.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. PKY480@gmail.com