At 5pm, the light was already fading outside HKBUAS Wong Kam Fai Secondary School in Shek Mun as a group of about 10 pupils began yet another weekly lesson.
The focus was on the core subjects of Chinese, English, maths and liberal studies, but foremost on the pupils' minds was the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examinations, which they and nearly 80,000 other pupils from schools across the city will sit for the first time in March.
The pupils, who had been chatting among themselves, quickly switched to preparation mode, putting bottled drinks, books and stationery on the desks before them as their liberal studies teacher entered the room.
The HKDSE, part of reforms that have reduced secondary school from seven years to six, followed by four years of university instead of three, under a '3-3-4' structure, will replace the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and the Hong Kong A-Level exam. Next year, the Hong Kong A-Level exam will be taken for the last time, by nearly 40,000 pupils, also in March.
As the old and the new secondary syllabuses overlap, nearly 120,000 pupils are expected to apply for university places next year, up from about 40,000 this year, creating intense competition for limited spaces. Hong Kong's eight universities will face an uphill task to vet the surge of applications, with some bringing their admissions programmes forward by about six months in anticipation of the two entry exams, and some making arrangements to expand their 2012 intake. However, only 15,000 places have been allocated to candidates from each exam.
Among pupils, feelings of panic have been reported as they prepare for the first HKDSE exam, leading to cramming sessions such as the one at the Shek Mun school.
Many pupils are also receiving additional support at tutorial centres that have capitalised on parents' worries about the new exam.
'It is necessary to have these lessons if you want to get good results in the exam,' said Herman Hui Hon-man, a Secondary Six pupil at Wong Kam Fai and one of those chosen for extra tuition to boost their prospects.
'Many students want to hone their examination skills,' said Iris Tsang Sz-chai, a fellow pupil who is taking extra support classes twice a week. The Examinations and Assessment Authority has provided practice papers, but Iris did not feel fully reassured.
'It is unclear exactly what levels students need to reach before they can get into a university or programme,' she said.
A careers master at an elite school for girls said: 'More senior-form students have inquired about studying abroad this year. Some said they found the senior secondary curriculum difficult.'
About 17, or more than 10 per cent, of the Secondary Five pupils at Wong Kam Fai last year had left, said principal Chan Wai-kai.
'Some left to do GCE A-levels in the UK. Other schools have seen similar departure rates,' Chan said.
He expects the large number of school leavers next year to generate intense competition not just for degree but also sub-degree places.
A particular cause for concern is the new subject of liberal studies, which even its teachers find a challenge to grade.
'You need a lot of wisdom to do the grading,' said Lee Wai-kim, who heads the school's liberal studies panel,.
'Teachers doing the marking have to have a liberal mind and relevant training before they can mark fairly. The marking can be subjective and vary depending on the teacher's depth of knowledge and personal attitudes. It is most difficult to decide on what is between the highest and lowest grades, which can mean the difference of a level in the exam.'
Lee believes candidates in liberal studies should be given only a pass or a fail: 'If a student can make valid points and does not stray from the topic, he should be given a pass.'
Contrary to the ideal of helping pupils develop integrated knowledge, schools teaching liberal studies are relying on bombarding pupils with newspaper articles and popular concepts such as globalisation to prepare them for the exam. Lee said this undermined the purpose of the subject - to teach independent thinking.
Iris said she had little confidence in her grasp of the subject: 'Unlike in maths, you are not sure whether you have actually got the answers right. I have a limited understanding of current affairs.'
Teachers are also frustrated with the workload of teaching liberal studies, which includes projects that account for 20 per cent of a pupil's grade.
'It is a painful process,' Lee said. 'Some projects done for different subjects duplicate the abilities tested. There should be an integrated assessment instead of having projects for different subjects.'
Other teachers acknowledge the difficulty of tackling an inquiry-based subject like liberal studies in large classes. One said tutorial centres, some of which even give tuition online end up drilling rather than broadening the mind.
'Hong Kong's education system emphasises studying to get high marks in exams rather than for the sake of knowledge,' a teacher said.
Asked why she sought extra support at her school rather than a tutorial centre, Iris said: 'I get more individual attention here.'
However, Professor John Spinks, chairman of the University of Hong Kong's admissions committee, believes pupils will have a better chance of admission compared with those in previous years.
The first reason, he said, is that HKU, which received more than 42,000 local and overseas applications this year - surpassing Harvard - has been given 100 additional first-year places for next year by the University Grants Committee.
Spinks said although many pupils will have similar scores on the HKDSE, universities will use additional factors as tie-breakers, including the level achieved in a third elective, interview scores, the pupil learning profile and pupils' other experiences and achievements.
'With the first HKDSE cohort, it is true that HKDSE students will not be able to know the exact result needed for admission,' said Professor Tam Kar-yan, associate provost and dean of students at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
'It is understandable that students may wish to find ways to predict their chances of admission.'
He urged pupils, in their university applications, to focus on their strengths and interests.
Many pupils are considering studying abroad, and the British Council in Hong Kong has reported a 34 per cent increase in the number of applications for enrolment at British institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, so far this year.
'We have seen a lot going after Form Five to do A-level or equivalent courses in the UK and more going earlier as well. The figures show the readiness of Hong Kong pupils to go abroad to study. They are going for good courses and are planning well ahead,' said Katherine Forestier, the council's director of education, science and society.
'It's about what you can gain by going for a top university. It is not just the exam that is a reason but the expansion of the number of international schools. People are just investing more in education now and see it as an advantage for their child.'
Educators, however, expect the anxiety level to come down in about two years' time, when more is known about where pupils can get admitted with their exam results.
Number of university places available next year
- 120,000: the number of applications expected for those places