Pupils preparing for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education can breathe a sigh of relief at growing international recognition for the new exam.
More than 20 British universities have released their entry requirements for candidates taking the diploma, after it was rated against other qualifications in the admissions tariff of Britain's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) last year.
The UCAS tariff is widely used by admissions staff around the world to assess the standard of unfamiliar qualifications, though the agency has cautioned that its ratings are not binding on universities, which set their own admission requirements.
A score of level 5* in the diploma is worth 130 tariff points, equivalent to grade 7 in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Higher Level Certificate, while level 5 is rated 120, equal to an A in the British GCE A-level.
UCAS tariff points have been allocated to 23 Hong Kong diploma subjects, and the compulsory and extended parts of maths, while the highest score, 5**, is yet to be rated, pending receipt of candidate evidence next year, UCAS says.
Research-led universities in Britain's Russell Group are typically demanding at least three Hong Kong diploma subjects at level 5 or 4, plus additional requirements for particular subjects.
Bristol University requires three electives at scores ranging from level 5* plus two level 5s to three level 4s, depending on the programme, plus level 3 or above in all the diploma's core subjects. A new A* grade in the British A-level that was introduced last year has been rated at 140 points on the UCAS tariff and a few highly ranked universities in Britain are demanding one or more A* grades this year. They also tend to ask for higher grades for the diploma.
The University of Cambridge, for example, which now requires two As and one A* in British A-levels, is demanding two Hong Kong diploma subjects at level 5* and one at level 5 as its general entrance requirement.
Cambridge will set its requirement for the diploma's English paper after the first sitting of the exam next year. It currently requires applicants to score 7 across all parts of the International English Language Testing System test.
Katherine Forestier, director of education and society at the British Council Hong Kong, says the diploma will actually make it easier for the best and brightest Hong Kong students to get into top British universities.
This is because the diploma is more comparable to British A-levels than was the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE). 'In 2010, less than 4 per cent of results achieved grade A in HKALE - a similar proportion to at least a decade ago - compared with 26 per cent in GCE A-level,' she says.
'Although HKALE has been regarded as comparable to GCE A-levels, the two sets of qualifications have diverged over the last decade so that the grading isn't comparable, though some universities have continued to treat them as so. This has made it tougher to apply to [these institutions] with HKALE.'
In the United States, top institutions such as Yale and Stanford give a lot of weight to applicants' all-round development, and excellent examination results alone are not sufficient, says Angel Lau, Education USA adviser at the US consulate in Hong Kong. 'They adopt a holistic approach in assessing applications and look at personal profiles and records of extra-curricular activities,' she says. 'A successful application also depends on the size of the pool of applicants every year, and their geographical distribution.
'US institutions generally prefer diversified student populations and therefore tend to maintain a certain percentage of international students from each region. And institutions in the mid-West, which want to get more international students, have less-demanding requirements.'
Lau says Hong Kong students are highly regarded by American admissions directors. 'Some small liberal arts colleges have actually come here to attract more students,' she says.
In Australia, the Hong Kong diploma has been assessed as comparable to the school-leaving certificates set by state education authorities, though, as elsewhere, each university sets its own admission requirements for international students. The University of South Australia requires maths and liberal studies at level 3 or above, plus a score of at least level 3 in one or two electives - depending on the programme.
There is some concern among Australian universities about the first release date of the diploma results on July 20, 2012, which is three weeks later than HKALE results day, as Australian university programmes start in late July to early August. Gavin McDougall, director of public affairs at the Australian consulate in Hong Kong, says Australian Education International Hong Kong will work with the city's Education Bureau to seek an earlier release date in future years. This is to ensure adequate time for institutions to review student applications and students' visa applications before term begins.
However, it is also possible to start most programmes at Australian universities at the start of the autumn term in late February to early March.
And the majority of Hong Kong students enter Australian universities through pathway programmes such as foundation studies, diploma courses and English language courses, which have a more frequent intake date.
In Hong Kong the eight publicly funded tertiary institutions have common basic requirements of level 3 for Chinese and English language, level 2 for mathematics and liberal studies and level 3 in one or two elective subjects. However, Hong Kong universities, like their counterparts abroad, set their own admission requirements and there are also variations between faculties.
An Education Bureau spokesman says: 'As the exam begins to roll out in 2012 and with more live examples of standards and actual student achievements, wide acceptance of the Hong Kong diploma is expected.'
Overseas universities' admission requirements for the diploma can be found on the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority website.