Hong Kong is heading for the unfamiliar position of having more university places than it knows what to do with. Within three years, education authorities say, we will have 1,200 more places than the number of students expected to meet entry requirements. This compares with an expected shortage of 5,000 places in the coming academic year. The reasons are falling student numbers and increasing competition for students from private institutions. It is not a one-off. The number of Form Six students is forecast to continue falling, from 71,700 this year to 59,400 in three years and to 45,100 in 2022, before trending up again.
Critics blame the surplus of university places on inaccurate forecasts of population growth. The reactions of officials and education sector lawmakers also seem to lack foresight. Michelle Li Mei-sheung, deputy secretary for higher education in the Education Bureau, said filling places was not the sector's main role and enrolments should drop. Lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said some institutions might have to close.
All things being equal, this sounds reasonable. But they are not, as shown by concerns among education academics. A Chinese University study found that only half a sample of 4,500 15-year-old secondary students thought they would complete a university education, compared with 81 per cent in South Korea and 70 per cent in Singapore. Previous studies show expansion of higher education has not significantly lifted participation by students from poorer families.
Taken together, such data raises questions about talk of cutting enrolments and closing institutions. That is not to question the importance of controlling expenditures and maintaining standards. But education remains the surest foundation for fulfilment of potential and building a competitive society. The coming surplus of places is a window of opportunity to improve secondary education outcomes, so that more students meet university entry requirements, and target inequality.