Once again, Hong Kong has failed to produce enough students to feed its universities. Of the 30,094 who took the Advanced Level Examination this year, only 13,810, or 46 per cent, achieved the minimum matriculation requirement of passes in English and Chinese and at least two other A-level subjects or one A-level subject and two Advanced Supplementary Level subjects. The figure compares with the 14,500 first-year first-degree places available at the six universities and Lingnan College, funded through the University Grants Committee (UGC). What is so sad about the shortfall is that the A-level exam's pass rate was low not because the students did not work hard. On the contrary, many studied very hard and tried various means to enhance their examination performance, including enrolling in privately-run cramming schools with a reputation for 'tipping' examination questions. The irony was 584 students who made the extra effort to do well ended up achieving the opposite result because they were found to have regurgitated a 'model essay' provided by one such college for the exam in Chinese Language and Culture. But even if they had all passed, the figures would not have matched. The 'model essay' was provided by a cramming school which had a subject committee member of the Hong Kong Examinations Authority (HKEA) as one of its consultants. To discourage regurgitation, the HKEA decided to re-mark the papers of these candidates and ignored those parts of their scripts which closely resembled the 'model essay'. Apart from highlighting a need for the HKEA to tighten its rules, the incident should also provide food for thought for those concerned about the future of education in Hong Kong. Prospective university students have found it necessary to reproduce a model essay in writing an examination whose purpose was to test their proficiency in Chinese, their native language. Were these students so weak in their command of the Chinese language that they resorted to regurgitation? Not necessarily. According to the HKEA, among the students penalised, a few had performed quite well in their other papers. The clients of the cramming school in question were also known to include students from secondary schools whose standards have been high and whose students usually have no problem getting into universities. Peer pressure and a lack of confidence in their own ability appear to have a lot to do with the students' behaviour. Above all, the temptation to get good results by reproducing a 'model answer' provided by someone who might have an inside track at the HKEA was too great to resist. As one student put it, 'what was so wrong about reproducing model answers'? 'It is just like horse racing. If you have a tip about which horse will win, you will certainly bet big on it because you want to win. 'Don't say this is a wrong attitude. Passing exams is just like gambling - even if you studied late into the evening and skipped all social engagements, all your efforts would be futile if you failed to tip the right topics. 'I think it is really stupid to test a person's intellectual ability simply by a three-hour test. 'To me, the two-year sixth form course was to train me to become an answering and writing machine, because I had to answer four questions, requiring a seven-page long answer, in three hours. 'If you are not very familiar with the questions, how can you be so automatic?' If this young person sounds cynical, then take a look at the words of the author of a popular book aimed at helping law students pass their exams. He started off with an even more blunt note: 'There is only one sure way to pass examinations and that is to cheat. 'If this sounds improper then consider that a full year of work on a subject, hundreds of lectures and tutorials, endless reading of case law and textbooks and countless hours of fretful revision, may well be assessed in a single, three-hour examination. 'That is hardly a fair process. Only the most moralistic of students would have qualms about taking a short cut by a careful attempt to cheat the system.' But in the absence of a better alternative, it has been accepted as a necessary evil. It is fair to say that under any system of assessment, there will be candidates trying to beat the system and there will be 'service providers' offering what they can. The question for educators is whether there are deficiencies in the school system which might encourage such behaviour. Hong Kong should not head down the same path as Japan where it has come to be accepted as 'normal and necessary' for students to attend cramming schools.