Scholarships for overseas study are an investment in Hong Kong

Cynthia Ip calls for more government scholarships for overseas study

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 5:46am

When Ray Fung got into the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, he wasn't sure he could afford to attend. Although Wharton is the best place for his intended field of study - operations management and marketing - an undergraduate degree at an Ivy League school typically comes with a price tag of around HK$400,000 a year, 10 times the cost at a local university.

Fortunately, Fung later secured an overseas scholarship from the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fund, one of three awarded for undergraduate studies that year, which paid most of his fees. Had he failed to get a scholarship, he would have had to stay here.

Whereas local universities are heavily subsidised, an overseas education is cost-prohibitive to most middle-class families. There are only a handful of scholarships that allow outstanding students to pursue degrees abroad. Even though a number of US universities now include international students in their need-blind admissions policy, most have limited financial aid for non-citizens.

It is no wonder Hong Kong students at top universities in the US or Britain come disproportionately from moneyed backgrounds.

In contrast, Singapore is rich in scholarship. In 2012, its Public Service Commission alone sent 53 high-achieving students to the world's most prestigious institutions. Singapore believes scholarships are essential to its meritocratic system.

Of course, a few scholarships can't narrow the disparate educational experiences between the most well-off and the least. They can only level the playing field for high-achieving students. Nonetheless, such scholarships do give many young people whose parents are of modest means opportunities to "move up and do well".

A similar scheme provided by our government could almost guarantee that no Hong Kong student would be denied entrance to a top university due to insufficient funding. Most prerequisites are in place: an agency to administer scholarships and competitive candidates to apply. The only piece missing is the money - a one-off fund of, say, less than HK$2 billion. With budget season coming up, the government must find ways to spend its embarrassingly large fiscal surplus, projected to be HK$30 billion this time.

But why spend it on expensive degrees from foreign universities? I do not suggest that local schools are inferior or that we should not also increase their funding. The matter is simple: Hong Kong has some of the world's best universities, but there are even more abroad.

Yet some local educators find a policy that sends talent away an insult to our own education system. Precisely the opposite is true. Foreign universities enhance our education system. They already play an indispensable role in training Hong Kong people, advancing our society, and facilitating the international flow of ideas. More importantly, an overseas education offers a number of unique opportunities unavailable at home.

Moreover, beyond Hong Kong is a wealth of top programmes to explore. The key is that overseas graduates will eventually bring their experiences and expertise back to Hong Kong and diversify our economy and workforce.

For those who detest the idea of money leaving Hong Kong, into the pockets of foreigners, look at the scholarship scheme as an investment - in our economy and governance, but most of all, in our young people. A scholarship empowers, brings hope, and enables talented young people to realise their potential. And that is priceless.

Cynthia Ip, of New People's Party, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012