The number of Hong Kong students applying for places at mainland universities has increased by 25 per cent in the past year because of a growing belief that an education across the border may be the key to tapping China's booming job market. A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Examinations Authority said yesterday it had received more than 500 applications for study places at more than 200 mainland universities for the next academic year when the deadline closed yesterday. The authority spokeswoman said candidates could also lodge applications with the 11 branches of China Travel Agency, for which figures would not be available until later this week. Last year 395 SAR students lodged applications for mainland study, while the authority received 238 applications in 2000. The authority is commissioned by mainland universities to conduct admissions in Hong Kong. 'We have distributed more than 3,000 application forms this year compared with about 1,000 last year,' the spokeswoman said. Mainland educators said many Hong Kong students see living and studying on the mainland as instrumental in familiarising themselves with the culture and language. In contrast to previous years, Hong Kong students have chosen Guangdong-based universities first. Zhongshan University in Guangzhou overtook Peking University this year as the most popular choice among Hong Kong students, with 32 applications up to last Friday. Peking University and Fudan University in Shanghai ranked second, with 16 applications apiece, followed by Shenzhen University and Jinan University with 13 applications each. Professor Xu Xihui, former director of the Centre for Hong Kong and Macau Studies at Zhongshan University, attributed the rising number of Hong Kong students applying to study at the institution to its closeness to Hong Kong and its cheaper tuition fees. Zhongshan University charges a Hong Kong student about 12,000 yuan (HK$11,300) a year compared with an annual tuition fees of $42,100 for a degree course at a Hong Kong university. Zhongshan, considered by the Ministry of Education to be one of the mainland's best universities, opened a 3.4 sq km campus two years ago. The university wants to attract students from Hong Kong. The director of Shenzhen University's admission office, Lin Zhaoguang, said it cost 15,000 yuan a year for SAR and overseas students to study at Shenzhen University, while mainland students paid 5,500 yuan a year.