Hong Kong universities should look beyond the DSE if they want to be world leaders and cultivate innovators
Anson Au says the world’s best universities don’t admit students based on their grades alone. So why does Hong Kong persist with the fallacy?
Pupils are currently grinding through Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams and will be plunged into existential uncertainty until their results are released. On this judgment day, all prospects of future success will hinge upon being accepted into university, which depends primarily on the grades pupils receive. Although the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (Jupas) has implemented more “holistic” evaluation criteria, such as “other experiences and achievements”, and a personal essay akin to a statement of purpose, every pupil knows the open secret: only a small fraction of those applying to publicly funded universities will get accepted – and DSE results are key.
What’s more, the decisions on what to include in the DSE are random and even unfair, pulling in ambiguous pieces from different fields with no clear rationale or assurance that pupils could answer the questions, especially in cases where even the author admits to being unable to do so
None of the top universities in the world conduct admissions based on such criteria. Hong Kong should drop the DSE. Having worked at Harvard and the London School of Economics, I’m familiar with their undergraduate and postgraduate admission committees, so this is not an argument for “snowflakes.”
Alumni of these institutions go on to distinguish themselves on the world stage, winning Nobel Prizes, driving change in entire nations and becoming leaders in different sectors. They are innovators and visionaries, but not top performing examinees at admission. Performance in standardised exams such as scholastic achievement tests (SATs), graduate record examinations (GREs) and A-levels are not what get pupils in. Pupils’ grades must reach a certain benchmark, set at a reasonable level, to be considered, but this is never the criterion upon which acceptance decisions are made.
Research shows that while exams may help learning, when designed effectively, standardised tests do not. A Columbia University report noted that standardised tests only assess whether pupils are proficient at the time of testing, do not aid learning for many types of learners and sabotage the secondary school education system by leading it to “teach to the tests”.
To achieve long-term success, we should promote deep learning, not rote learning. Success and learning happens in the field, so the best universities look for a desire to contribute to the world and evidence of such contributions through grass-roots, personal initiatives and for those who display the most potential in pursuit of their passions, not pupils who score the highest on exams.
Medicine is one of the most traditionally idealised professions in the Hong Kong education system. But many doctors will tell you that a love for medicine never blossoms in a textbook, but in the field. Top universities look for pupils most suited to practising medicine and keenest about its mission of service. They expect graduates to change the world in ways large or small, not to just find a job.
This is why, even at graduate level, the best universities accept pupils from small-town colleges and countries around the world. The goals are social contribution and transformation on a scale beyond individual gain, and creating a learning environment saturated with diverse experiences needed for personal and professional growth, which are entwined.
Overseas education systems do have their problems, but the DSE is one of Hong Kong’s. It is why a colossal tutoring industry worth over a billion dollars has taken root in Hong Kong. It signals that the school curriculum is deficient for the purposes of education, that education itself has been hijacked into generating profits for tutors. It means pupils will be forced to crunch their schedules into no time for anything other than attending school, after-school tutoring and homework for both. It means children will be stressed and plunged into lifelong mental health issues. It means students are trained to just find a job, not seek a passion and discover a vocation for social contribution.
Universities need to reconsider their priorities for admissions and the DSE needs to go. Hong Kong children deserve more from their education system, and the world deserves more of Hong Kong graduates.
Anson Au is a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University