Don't let rigid entrance criteria keep talent out of Hong Kong universities

Paul Stapleton urges acceptance of brilliant but not well-rounded students

This month, final-year secondary school students are writing exams that in many cases will determine their future.

For those with hopes of entering university, their main focus will be on doing well in the four core subjects. Normally, students hoping to enter university must achieve a minimum score of "3" in both Chinese and English and a score of "2" in both maths and liberal studies, sometimes referred to as "3322".

Recently, however, despite these recognised minimum grades, some students were accepted into local universities with exam results that did not meet these standards.

For example, three students were admitted recently to Chinese University with top scores (5* and above) in maths and other subjects, despite low scores in Chinese.

These exceptional offers may be marking a new flexibility among university admission offices and, if so, this should be considered a very positive step. Until now, it has been only those students who perform well enough in the four core subjects who make it into local universities.

This means that even if a secondary school graduate displays brilliance in science and maths, but is poor at one of the languages, his or her prospects for further education are greatly diminished, if not extinguished.

This budding realisation that good academic potential need not be confined to those who reach minimum levels in the prescribed core subjects comes at a time when we are learning more about specific learning disabilities.

For example, it is now well-established that dyslexia, a reading disability which has a heritability of about 50 per cent, runs in families.

However, as our understanding of genetics and how the brain operates increases, it is clear that having an intellectual disability can be the flip side of a coin. Just as some individuals are born disadvantaged, others are born with certain gifts.

Of course, this is not startling news. The media occasionally report on those with special gifts in music or mathematics.

Research on the brain is now revealing that, sometimes, these disparities in ability exist within the same person, and it is here where standardised assessment can let talent slip through the cracks.

Possessing a natural gift for numbers, for example, can often come at the expense of linguistic ability. Similarly, it is said that those with dyslexia, despite their difficulties with reading, are especially good at dynamic reasoning and making spatial connections, which makes them particularly suited to interdisciplinary fields where thinking outside the box is important.

Returning to the question of university admittance, the present "3322" system, which sets a minimum standard across four disparate subjects, may be casting a net with large holes. The three fortunate students mentioned who managed to enter university on an exceptional basis may be the thin edge of a wedge of students who are singularly gifted and disadvantaged at the same time.

In other words, there are probably substantial numbers of students in Hong Kong who are exceedingly gifted in maths, yet have failed to gain university acceptance because they are deficient in one of the two languages, and vice versa.

Admittedly, a system that must sort the wheat from the chaff involving tens of thousands of students has to draw the line somewhere.

But the present one-size-fits-all system that favours the well-rounded over the unevenly gifted may be eliminating some brilliant students.

In an era of growing inclusiveness, there is a need to make room for those who show special promise, yet through no fault of their own are disadvantaged in one area.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Don't let rigid criteria keep talent out of HK universities