Less than half of 15-year-olds in Hong Kong expect to complete a university education, compared with more than 80 per cent of their peers in South Korea, a study shows.
The city also trails rival Singapore, where more than seven in 10 youngsters expect to graduate.
The figures raise questions about the quality of Hong Kong's workforce in an increasingly knowledge-based environment.
Academics at Chinese University will use the figures, compiled in 2009 from a Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), to keep track of how pupils progress under the new secondary school curriculum and how their career choices are affected.
The study found that 47.2 per cent of Hong Kong pupils thought they would finish a university education, compared with 80.9 per cent in South Korea and 70.1 per cent in Singapore.
Only 18 per cent of students in the city gain admission to publicly funded universities, compared with more than 80 per cent in South Korea. Taiwan's admission rate, in theory, is 100 per cent, while Singapore is 26 per cent.
Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said Hong Kong's admission rate could increase to 30 per cent because of the decline in the number of young people and he hoped it could be pushed up to 40 per cent in five years.
But he conceded: "The low rate must have an effect on Hong Kong's competitiveness, when we are talking about building a knowledge economy."
The Hong Kong figure rose to 51 per cent in a 2012 test, which showed that students with higher socio-economic backgrounds were more optimistic. Some 81.1 per cent from the top 10 per cent group expected to finish university, compared with 34.8 per cent for the lowest 10 per cent.
About 4,500 15-year-olds took part in the test last year, and researchers from PISA's Hong Kong centre and Chinese University will follow 3,500 of them over the next three years.
Professor Esther Ho Sui-chu, of the university's department of educational administration and policy, said the financial burden on poorer families could explain the low expectations.
"If they don't even dare to expect to go to university, how can they put much effort into their studies?" she said.
Ip agreed the low university admission rate was a major factor among student expectations.
"The students are thinking practically," he said. "The banding system plays a part, too. By grouping students of different levels into different schools, there might be an atmosphere in poorer schools where students think they have little chance."
Ho said Hong Kong should go in the direction of adding university places.
"But it's difficult to say how many is enough. We lack research and planning. It's not that the more young people entering university the better. The government could invest in education programmes that suit the city's development as well."
*Correction: The graphic in an earlier version cited City University of Hong Kong as the source. The data is from Chinese University of Hong Kong.