Tony Hui Chun-pong pays higher tuition fees than most other university students - HK$60,000 a year - and doesn't have a room in a dormitory. But the first-year journalism student at Hang Seng Management College is excited about having a taste of campus life. Thousands of school graduates are expected to join the ranks in September, having been denied places at the eight government-funded tertiary institutions based on their Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination results, released last week.
This year, 28,418 candidates obtained the minimum score for university admission, competing for the fixed quota of 15,000 government-subsidised, first-year degree places. The number of places available to them is actually smaller, around 12,000, taking into account the places universities reserve for students from overseas and the international school sector, who apply outside the joint admissions system.
To meet the soaring demand for university education, the government has encouraged the rise of private universities by providing them with land and interest-free start-up loans. But students have griped about the higher-than-usual tuition fees, ranging from HK$50,000 to more than HK$100,000 a year, and less well-equipped campuses.
After being elevated to a degree-granting institution in 2010, Hang Seng Management College - nestled on a hillside in Siu Lik Yuen, Sha Tin - underwent an expansion that saw its campus encompass three academic blocks.
With an undergraduate population of about 3,000, it has a mere 206 hostel places. That figure will rise to 1,200 when a new hostel is built next year. The objective of the eight institutions funded by the University Grants Committee to let students live on campus for at least one academic year hardly applies to privately run institutions.
But Hui is pleased to have moved on to undergraduate study, and has become heavily involved in student union and hall activities. "The campus life here is quite colourful. I am enjoying it. There are up to 30 student societies. Unlike in school, we have more freedom, and have the chance to think about various issues through various subjects, instead of just studying to pass exams."
But tuition remains a big concern. Hui says quite a few students are on government loans and grants. As president of the student union, he and a group of fellow students plan to press the college for financial transparency in September, and an explanation for fee increases in the new term." We were never told why our fees will go up by thousands of dollars," he says.
At another private institution, Shue Yan University, the fee for the coming academic year has remained at HK$55,000. Quite a number of students there hold part-time jobs.
"Some miss classes sometimes because of work; some are working as tutors or in sales," says sociology major Ng Chung-tat.
His family can barely afford the fees, and he worked as a waiter for four months before quitting to concentrate on student union activities.
Shue Yan students have discussed with university management issues such as the ageing classrooms, which have been in use for 30 years, and teaching quality, he adds.
The reply was that it takes time and resources to enhance infrastructural development. Established in 1971 as a pioneer in private tertiary education, Shue Yan has always been more cash-strapped than its UGC-funded counterparts.
Also eyeing further development are the five other government-approved private tertiary institutes, Centennial College, Chu Hai College of Higher Education, Tung Wah College, Caritas Institution of Higher Education, and Hang Seng Management College.
Various institutions are offering about 7,000 first-year degree places for graduates this year. Now with 1,200 students, Tung Wah expects to recruit 1,100 students, while Tuen Mun-based Chu Hai has about 700 places up for grabs for its three faculties of arts, commerce and science and engineering. Centennial College, with 250 students currently enrolled, has a planned intake of 240.
Professor Thomas Wong Kwok-shing, president of Tung Wah College, believes that there will continue to be a demand for private degrees, although he does not expect the sector to experience robust growth in the coming years, due to the falling school population.
His college fills a gap by meeting the strong market demand for graduates of practical disciplines such as accounting and health care. It is the only private college offering degree courses in veterinary health, grooming future nurses, assistants or aides for veterinary clinics, at a total cost of HK$400,000. Its nursing course, leading to the qualification of registered nurse, costs HK$450,000.
Graduates of its medical science programme are eligible for direct entry into master's programmes in medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy and imaging at the University of Sydney.
"We are not out to make profits. We offer scholarships and bursaries, and make sure that no students will be denied a chance to do a degree because of financial reasons," Wong says.
"Some of our courses are articulated with studies in the UK. We are providing alternative pathways for students to obtain certain professional qualifications."
Despite the cost, the options offered in the private sector could be a draw for students, who aspire to enter university, rather than heading straight into the workforce.
"I don't consider myself attending a second-best institution. I don't care about a label anyway," says the positive-minded Hui. "One's success does not depend on which university you went to, but your character. Whatever institution you go to, what matters is you make the best of your time there.
"Nowadays, employers do not just look at your academic qualifications, but also whether you have self-confidence and the necessary skills. I am not worried about being able to find a job in the future."
Student decline raises new challeges
The number of Form Six graduates is projected to shrink from 71,700 this year to 46,200 in 2023, a drop of nearly 36 per cent, owing to falling birth rates, according to the Education Bureau.
But the expected drop in demand for university places in 10 years doesn't mean there will be less need for them - more of which should be funded by the government, educators say.
Eddie Chan Shu-fai, secretary-general of the Federation of Students, says: "The government has left the provision of tertiary education to the [private sector]. But it will take a long time for the academic standing of private institutions to catch up with that of those funded by the [University Grants Committee]."
Professor Chung Yue-ping, of Chinese University's educational administration department, says boosting funding for public universities and institutions will provide a healthy supply of skilled workers who will help the city's future economic development.
Professor Thomas Wong Kwok-shing, the president of Tung Wah College, sees no need for further expansion of private tertiary education and says the time has come for a consolidation of the self-financed sub-degree sector - particularly associate degree (AD) programmes. Official statistics show that about 40,000 sub-degree places are on offer this year. "The drop in student numbers will affect AD programmes more," says Wong.
"Students need to be careful with the kind of AD courses they take," especially with too specific courses such as tourism in ticketing, he says. "[And] some may offer a false hope for getting a degree."