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Why Hongkongers need to be careful when choosing an overseas university

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 6:13pm

Broadening young minds through overseas exposure lies behind most decisions to study abroad. And it's a trend that contributes much to the economy of the two top destinations, the US and Britain.

International students in London alone contribute net gains of £2.3 billion (HK$27.3 billion) a year to the British economy, a recent consultancy report revealed. In 2013-2014 almost 67,500 international students were attending London universities, comprising 18 per cent of the total student population in the capital and 22 per cent of the 310,000 international students across the UK. In comparison, the cost of providing them with public services was just £540 million, according to The Guardian.

The chief executive of business lobby London First, which did the study with PricewaterhouseCoopers, called foreign students' expenditure a "modern-day export".

Britain is the second most popular host country after the US, which, in 2013-14, saw a record high number of 886,052 international students, an annual increase of 8 per cent.

It appears the age of Hong Kong students going abroad is falling, judging from the growing interest among parents in boarding education. Marketing efforts have paid off, but families should also be careful not to succumb to a herd mentality.

The sheer size of the two markets means standards could potentially vary considerably. Careful research and a cautious approach will better ensure value for money.

Many academics everywhere face the same struggle - juggling administrative duties, organising conferences, writing proposals for grants, and research and teaching. As a result, the amount of attention students receive from their faculty can suffer.

Last year, prominent writer and scholar Marina Warner quit the University of Essex in protest against a system in which she said "academics are subjugated to the managers", according to UK media.

Quality of teaching cannot be quantified, hence neither can it be truly reflected in ranking exercises based on statistics

A Hong Kong academic working at a well-known British university is also frustrated. She says international students pay huge tuition fees to study at UK universities, but questions whether the money is well spent.

At her institution, facilities are inadequate and old, in general; her departmental office is only open on average three to four hours a day and often shuts at short notice; and the university has been unable to honour its pledge to provide on-campus accommodation to all first-year students, owing to a shortage of space and probable over-enrolment.

Ranking tables do not reflect the real quality of teaching, she says. Quality cannot be quantified, hence neither can it be truly reflected in ranking exercises based on statistical data. Satisfaction surveys reflect to some extent how students feel about their lessons, but don't necessarily do justice to teachers. At worst, such surveys could cause some teachers to dumb down their course requirements or approaches as they are forced to regard their students as customers.

For international students, especially, attention and support from the university can help ease any adjustment problems they might have. Therefore it is better to choose the institution carefully, rather than go on brand name. Hong Kong, luckily, has its own range of much less costly choices, particularly the eight publicly funded institutions. Top local students seek places in the top schools in these institutions, while the cream of the crop might look to Ivy League institutions or Oxbridge.

A 17-year-old has told me she would rather stay in Hong Kong to avoid adding to her family's financial burden. Staying near home is also important to her because of the emotional support she can get here. That's a fair enough view. Like choosing a school, finding a university is always about finding a good match, with a bit of discernment.