Questions over who gets HK Rhodes Scholarships

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 2010, 12:00am

The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the world's most prestigious international study awards; recipients include former US president Bill Clinton, astronomer Edwin Hubble and Australian Nobel Laureate Howard Florey.

It isn't easy to win one: students must display leadership, integrity, community spirit and energy and be outstanding academics. In Hong Kong, Chinese University students have far outpaced their peers in the rigorous selection process, with 11 of the last 16 annual awards going to them - that's more than two thirds.

It's an enviable record, and one that has provoked envy - and questions. Academics at other universities ask whether the location of the Rhodes Trust secretariat for Hong Kong - within CUHK's office of admissions and financial aid - could have influenced the university's success in winning postgraduate scholarships to the University of Oxford.

Chinese University and the Rhodes Selection Committee in Hong Kong vigorously reject any suggestion of favouritism; CUHK students win more awards, they say, because more of them apply.

'People from other universities have complained,' said Grace Chow, director of admissions and financial aid at Chinese University, and also administrator of the Rhodes Scholarship. 'This is so unfair. We have been doing this on a voluntary basis. The other universities have representatives on the committee. They could also say: 'Mrs Chow, please give the secretariat back to us'.'

Chinese University has administered the scholarship since 1995. Previously, it was jointly run by CUHK and the University of Hong Kong, which hosted the secretariat in alternate years.

Since 1997, every Hong Kong Rhodes Scholarship has gone to a CUHK student except the 2001 and 2003 awards, which were claimed by students from the University of Hong Kong, and last year's, which was won by a Peking University student.

No award was made in 2006, when the Hong Kong scholarship was one of about 10 around the world that were abolished by the Rhodes Trust due to funding problems. It was reinstated in 2007 following a large donation from the Lee Hysan Foundation that was used to endow the city's scholarship.

In 2005, the Chinese University campus newsletter trumpeted that 'CUHK produces the most Rhodes Scholars', while last year it held a lecture during which a former scholar disclosed a question he said was used in the selection process.

'The staff time is provided on a pro bono basis,' said Chow, who added that her role as administrator was purely secretarial. 'And the Rhodes Trust pays the administrative costs for the disbursements. I really don't think it has anything to do with our students being selected.'

She said she had written to the vice-chancellors of all eight publicly funded universities urging them to promote the Rhodes Scholarship and encourage students to apply for both the 2010 and 2011 awards.

'Every institution has a lot of scholarships and they have a lot of work to do, so maybe they don't have time to promulgate the Rhodes Scholarship,' she said. 'We promote all scholarships very vigorously because that is our duty.'

The fact that CUHK was Hong Kong's only university with a college system - promoting community spirit - could be a factor in its high success rate, she said, as the Rhodes Trust was looking for people who were 'civic minded' and 'cared for the community'.

Eric Wear, chairman of the Hong Kong Rhodes selection committee, said: 'I can say without reservation that there is no favouritism in the selection process itself. The selection committee is chosen by the Rhodes Trust from the community of former Rhodes Scholars and Oxbridge graduates in Hong Kong.'

Wear, a retired associate professor at Polytechnic University, said members included one HKU academic, one from CUHK, two business people and two lawyers. Another CUHK academic will join next year. During the selection process, each candidate was interviewed separately by two panel members who have no affiliation to the candidate's university.

Wear said most applications came from CUHK or HKU. Over the past three years, CUHK students accounted for between a third and two-thirds of the total applicants, while the proportion from HKU ranged from less than 10 per cent to 38 per cent.

Lee Jark-pui, president of the Hong Kong University Arts Alumni Association, said: 'Of course, the people responsible for the Rhodes Scholarship should think about how to administer it in a way that avoids confusion and misconceptions among students and the public. It would be better if all the universities came together and found an arrangement which satisfies everybody.'

Or perhaps they just need to get the word out more. Oxford alumnus Fergus Fung Se Goun said: 'They need more publicity so that more people [will] apply for this scholarship from other universities.'

The Rhodes Scholarship is named after Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902), an English-born businessman, mining magnate and politician in South Africa who founded Rhodesia. He also founded the diamond company De Beers.