Hong Kong universities ranked highly but lack international students

Hong Kong's universities are ranked highly but they lack international students. A chronic shortage of hostel beds is a major drawback

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 March, 2013, 6:22am

Hong Kong's elite universities are basking in global recognition. But despite high rankings for outstanding teaching and research, one thing is lacking on the campuses of Asia's "World City" - truly international students.

The University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology were No23 and 33 respectively in last year's QS World University Rankings, and ranked among the world's top 100 institutions together with Chinese University in the latest Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.

And HKU went from No39 in the world to No36 in an international reputation survey involving global scholars.

However, statistics from the University Grants Committee - the government's higher education funding body - show that while the proportion of students enrolling at local universities who were not local was 14 per cent for the 2011-12 academic year, eight out of 10 came from the mainland.

Academics agree that bringing in more international students benefits the city and the institutions, as well as both local and non-local students.

In 2010, the grants body urged the higher education sector to embrace internationalisation and called for more collaboration between the government and universities. It also urged institutions to help non-local students integrate into campus life, increase high quality exchange opportunities and recruitment from abroad.

But local universities face challenges in making international students feel at home in the city - a chronic shortage of hostel accommodation is now a big problem.

"In Hong Kong this problem is a limiting factor in student exchanges, which has become really important for the breadth of education," says Mark Wainwright, a member of the grants committee and an emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales.

In Hong Kong this problem is a limiting factor in student exchanges, which has become really important for the breadth of education

His view is echoed by another veteran grants committee member, Colin Lucas, who is also chairman of the British Library Board. He said: "One of the very important aspects of why bringing students in and sending students out is so crucial is because if local students do not have a closer appreciation of the realities of different cultures, different ways of doing things, they will find it much more difficult to operate constructively and positively for themselves and for the communities they belong to in a world when they go out to it. Hong Kong universities are responding to this very well but there is a long way to go."

The government's long-held ambition of building an international education hub does not impress Lucas.

"I am not sure if an education hub is a fruitful way of thinking about it. If you are very good, people will come."

One senior academic dubbed the territory's internationalisation policy a mess, bemoaning the fact that Hong Kong lacks a campaign to promote itself as an education destination. Instead, the academic says: "Some universities just recruit mainland students with top grades to improve their reputation."

The two grants committee members believe the city has the potential to attract a far more diverse student body, as it offers an English-language education in an Asian environment.

"It is close to many Asian countries which have an influence and multicultural societies," Lucas says.

Finding somewhere to stay is not the only problem for international students. Despite the fact that most local university courses are offered in English, understanding the local culture can prove challenging.

May Hyunji Ku, president of the International Student Association at Chinese University gave a mark of six out of 10 for the level of integration of international students at local universities.

Her main frustration is that many local students are reluctant to speak English, and the fact that many of the elective courses and extracurricular activities that appeal to her are conducted in Chinese.

That means communication between local and non-local students is limited, she says.

"They don't understand each other because they don't talk," says the third-year business student. "The local students' biggest goal is to get a good grade. Exchange students want to learn more about the culture and they go out more. They tend to hang out with themselves."

More can definitely be done at an institutional and a personal level.

"More resources need to be put in," admits Peter Li, director of Baptist University's international office. "The commitment of senior management at any institution is very important. It also remains a question how well students utilise the chance of meeting foreign students. Teachers could add more international elements to their courses or engage in joint research with overseas academics."

Institutions have made great strides in setting up student exchange agreements with overseas campuses. Chinese University is leading the pack, with up to 24 per cent of its undergraduates spending a term or so at an overseas institution last year, compared to 16 per cent at Baptist University, 5 per cent at Polytechnic University and 8.7 per cent at HKU and HKUST. HKU, however, had the highest number of students from outside the mainland enrolled for full-time study last year at 1,231.

By contrast, the Hong Kong Institute of Education had just eight students from the rest of Asia and two from the rest of the world. Baptist University had 10 non-Asian students and 17 from the rest of Asia.

Hong Kong has seen a rising number of applications from close at hand, with students from Taiwan and South Korea applying in growing numbers.

But the lack of hostel beds and the prospect of students being forced into Hong Kong's pricey private rental market is a drawback. Polytechnic University and HKU are short of 1,795 and 1,900 hostel places respectively, in terms of meeting a target of enabling undergraduates to live on campus for at least one year.

"A long-term solution is for the government to provide us with land to build hostels," a HKU spokesman said.

As reported by the Pos t, at least 12,000 non-local university students are living in flats because of a lack of hostel places.

Baptist University expects to meet its shortfall of about 1,400 by completing residence halls in Tseung Kwan O by 2014 and others at a former Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education site in Kowloon Tong. The university is still vying for more space and is locked in a battle with the government over the rest of the Kowloon Tong site.

While the university wants to develop the southern portion of the site into a Chinese medicine teaching hospital, the government is eyeing it for building flats. A two-month public consultation was launched in late January on the issue.

Li says the extra bed spaces would offer a good opportunity to build a stronger international exchange programme.