How Hong Kong campuses compel students to socialise
At this time of year, university students are usually busy with examinations and end of term projects. Wang Yu, a second-year student at University of Hong Kong (HKU), is no exception. She is feeling exhausted, but not just because of her packed study timetable.
In the midst of a hectic schedule, she had spent seven hours attending a high table dinner organised by the dormitory in which she lives.
Living on campus does not mean students can more easily concentrate on their studies. Indeed, campus life to Wang is akin to a constant battle for time. Participating in the dinner, for example, mattered because she might lose the hostel place if she did not participate actively in hall events.
The pressure appears to be the most acute at HKU, which has limited space and at the same time situated in an expensive residential area.
Under a scoring system used by the university to decide students' access to dormitories, participation in hall activities is given much weight. At the Lady Ho Tung Hall, one of the largest residences at the university, "performance and attendance in hall activities" is worth 75 per cent of the overall score, while a student's "academic performance" is worth only 5 per cent.
"Ho Tung Hall is crazy," says Wang, who lives in R C Lee Hall. "My classmate in Ho Tung used to go through a whole month practising dancing from 1am to 3am every night with classes at 8 o'clock the next morning. She texted her leader asking for an exemption, but was told that she had to take part in it, for the sake of an inter-hall dancing competition."
Wang, who is doing a double major in law and literature, describes herself as an introvert who prefers studying on her own rather than going for group entertainment.
Some other students such as Jane Li, a third-year law student from the mainland, have forsaken the convenience of living on campus. She lived in a hall during her first year but was kicked out last year. Now she is sharing a two-bedroom apartment with two other schoolmates.
"I would prefer to stay in the hall if I had a choice, even though the costs are similar," she says. "It's too much hassle to rent an apartment, bring in extra furniture and negotiate with property agents."
To concentrate on their studies, most of her fellow law students have chosen not to live on campus either, she adds.
"We have to study for at least 10 hours every day. Even our professors have suggested us not to spend too much time on hall activities.
"I think there should be a limit to the time involved. The activities should offer added-value, rather than simply being group parties."
Under a bursary scheme for non-local students, she is eligible for a monthly subsidy of HK$2,600 from the university to rent off-campus housing units.
Hostel residents or not, an HKU spokeswoman says counselling services and advice are available to students struggling with time-management. She stresses the importance of hall life, which has enjoyed a long tradition at the territory's oldest university.
"Halls are learning communities, not merely places to live," she says.
"Hall education is as old as the university since the first hall, St John's Hall, was established. Halls of residence form part of the tradition of HKU. They are part of an education rather than just a provision of accommodation," the spokeswoman says.
"As residents have to learn to be independent and interact closely with students of different backgrounds under the same roof, halls are a very effective means to integrate students' social and intellectual lives, and therefore offer a golden opportunity for whole-person education."
An active hall life also affects a student's chances of regaining campus accommodation at Baptist University, which is short of 1,300 hostel places. Being supportive of a campus-based life, the government has pledged to provide for 1,600 places for the university by 2018. It has reserved the northern portion of the former Lee Wai Lee campus site in Kowloon Tong as a future hostel site.
A Baptist University spokesman says: "All universities want to provide at least one year of campus accommodation for students during their study but very few can achieve that." With only 2,624 students, the Tuen Mun-based Lingnan University is the only institution where campus accommodation is open to all undergraduates throughout their study, following the completion of a new hostel in September. Tying in with its mission of providing liberal arts education, all students are required to reside in a dormitory for at least two years.
Places are also quite readily available at some of the nine colleges at Chinese University, but usually the smaller, newer ones. In the older, larger colleges such as Chung Chi College, competition is much stiffer owing to the larger number of students registered with them.
Hall activities certainly constitute valuable learning experiences. But it remains questionable how heavily involved in them students should be. They seem to be more of a challenge at HKU.
Catherine Chu, a final-year education major and a resident at S.H. Ho College at Chinese University, has been staying at the dorm since she entered university. Not particularly interested in student activities, she thinks attending dinners three times a week together with the master of the college and fellow hall mates - a requirement for all at the hostel - is enough.
Ng Man-pan, a third-year student at Lingnan University, says his sister was rejected for a dorm at Polytechnic University because their family doesn't live far from campus.
He adds: "But a classmate rarely joined in student activities and yet he has been living in the dormitory for three years now."
According to its spokesman, HKU does have plans for more hostel places but would need the government to provide more land in the long run.