HKDSE - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

Confessions of a DSE high-scorer: Hong Kong’s education system must nurture all, not the few

Jennifer Qiu says our schools should be a place for the development of inquisitive minds and the free exploration of knowledge, not diploma mills

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 7:04pm

The Diploma of Secondary Education exam is a one-time bet for life and 18 years of hard work has all been for one thing – this single sheet of paper. The scene on DSE results day is no stranger to Hong Kong students – it has been replayed time and time again throughout the course of our lives whenever a test or exam has been given out. Marks determine our future and define who we are.

Often, we are told “grades aren’t everything”, but no one truly believes that because the system tells us otherwise. It is a delight to see the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (Jupas) emphasising a more holistic evaluation of candidates by introducing components such as Other Experiences and Achievements and a personal essay (that isn’t even compulsory). However, at the end of the day, we all know it comes down to DSE marks, and every single mark makes a difference. All other components in the application – interview performance, talents, personality, creativity – are nothing more than tie-breakers.

Universities award scholarships by counting the number of stars you get, admission offices proudly publicise DSE quartiles and medians of each programme, agencies rank programmes solely based on DSE medians of incoming students, and the media makes it a priority to direct the world’s attention towards the handful of perfect scorers. These only reinforce the twisted mindset that marks are the only thing that matter.

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I was lucky enough to go through both the UK and US application processes, and it struck me how narrow the Hong Kong university admission system is in comparison. To excel in British interviews and writing the personal statement, one must learn outside the syllabus and combine subject knowledge with current affairs so as to showcase one’s inquisitiveness and broad intellectual interests. In the US Common App system, essay questions are centred on personal events, such as incidents of failures and successes, our aspirations, world views and hobbies. Ultimately, the systems seek to bring out the uniqueness of the individual and how he or she can contribute to the classroom, the school and society in ways irrelevant to grades.

Foreign friends were admitted into top universities because they had done extraordinary things outside the classroom

My intent in making this comparison is not to say overseas systems are perfect and should be transplanted to Hong Kong. But I hope they provide insights into essential elements that could be integrated into the Jupas.

I have many foreign friends who were admitted into top universities because they had done extraordinary things outside the classroom. Every time I see them, I remind them how lucky they are to have universities that prize students’ talents, leadership skills, creativity and resilience to adversity.

It’s certainly not true that Hong Kong students are incapable of such qualities – all we can blame is the belief that every minute spent on doing something other than revision is a minute wasted. I have a friend who is a talented debater. Due to the time and devotion required by debate tournaments, her grades started to go downhill. Studying for the DSE was not only physically gruelling (she slept less than three hours a day) but also mentally torturing because she was hit with regret every day about how she had given up her studies to pursue her passion. And apparently, it was the worst decision ever. But should it have been?

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Every year, I see thousands of students with undiscovered potential being turned away from the doors of higher education because they fail to fit into the conventional measurement of intelligence. I don’t know them personally, but it pains me to see peers doomed for life – deprived of further learning opportunities and judged harshly by society simply for their inability to excel in one exam.

I might be a high-scorer in the DSE exam, but I know I’m just lucky enough to have understood and mastered the game rules. But in retrospect, what a pathetic player I was. For years, all I did was recite facts, complete past papers repeatedly to identify question patterns and memorise marking schemes to master the so-called “exam tactics”. Only when preparing for overseas applications did it hit me what a true learner should be. Schools should be a place for the development of inquisitive minds and free exploration of knowledge, and graduates should leave school with a hunger to know more and an urge to apply what was learnt. But an exam-oriented system does the opposite.

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Students sacrifice the pursuit of dreams, passions and personal time to cater to the needs of the system, and many are already fed up with learning by an early age. But the implications of such a system are much more far-reaching. Students become products of an automated cookie-cutting factory, identifiable only by a numbered label – our DSE marks. Due to this method of narrowly confining our identity to one cold, emotionless number, we are often trapped in existential crises, constantly asking ourselves: who are we? What is the purpose of life? What are we worth? For society, this system distorts people’s definition of human capability and confines it to a passive trait of memorisation and “exam tactics”. It fails to train students to be curious, motivated life-long learners for the benefit of societal progress.

Society should be diverse, not just a collection of book-smart individuals

Society should be diverse, not just a collection of book-smart individuals. Universities should take in a rich mix of different interests, personalities and talents. I sincerely hope that university admission criteria will start by humanising the student, not confining our worth to a grade, but taking into account talents, personalities and interpersonal skills. I also place hope in the government to provide more paths of self-enhancement to those who slip through the admissions system, such as a universal subsidy to take vocational courses, and an increase in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) courses. Helping a teenager helps his or her family and improves the lives of more generations to come. It would require huge capital, but it would be a very wise investment nonetheless.

Jennifer Qiu Zijun is a DSE high-scorer who will be studying in the US