Hong Kong design students benefit from studying in China

Two specialist design schools across the border are giving local students a passport to promising careers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 6:37am

Thousands of students are drawn to a design career, but degree places in the field are limited locally. While many opt for overseas universities as an alternative, some are venturing to study in China, acquiring a strong foundation in traditional techniques at top art academies.

According to the national Ministry of Education, the number of Hong Kong students studying at Chinese universities rose from 11,155 in 2011 to 15,330 in 2014.

Local students normally take the Joint Entrance Examination to study in China. In 2014, 322 out of 509 students who took the exam were admitted, according to the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA).

Students can choose not to take the exam and instead apply directly to 78 universities in China in a separate admission scheme with their Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education results. Other universities in China also recruit Hong Kong students individually.

Hong Kong student Wen Shiming had to pass a gruelling seven-hour sketching examination in addition to the exam to enter the elite Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, which has enrolled more than 200 students from Hong Kong since 2005.

"In Guangdong province alone, over 30,000 students applied to the academy but only 800 were accepted," Wen says.

Some passionate mainland art students will retake the exam year after year. After-school tutorial studios that coach students in exam techniques have become popular across China. One of these, the Guangzhou Ren Yi Arts Training School, helped Wen pass the academy exam on his first try.

Founded in 1953, the academy has evolved from a traditional art school into a leading design institute teaching painting, sculpture, industrial, visual communication and fashion design, among other subjects, to 8,000 students. In 1995, it established the Jimei Design Engineering Company on campus, which builds hotels, museums and concert halls in Guangdong.

An environmental design major, Wen hopes to design hotels after he graduates and is optimistic about finding employment.

Raised on the mainland, Wen adapted to campus life easily, but says some Hong Kong students were taken aback by the basic facilities, with four students often squeezed into a room with two bunk beds. "As soon as they arrived they wanted to move out; but they continued to stay," Wen says.

Another Hong Kong student, Lau Chak-kin, who took the Joint Entrance Examination last year, was admitted to Shantou University's Cheung Kong School of Art and Design, which opened in 2003. "After settling down, I grew to appreciate the quiet rural beauty of Shantou which transformed my thought processes," Lau says. "I can't have this in Hong Kong."

Majoring in creative design industries and management, Lau learned how to design and manage events and exhibitions. He promoted designers' products in the market.

The course has become very popular and our graduates are in high demand from mainland employers
Wang Shouzhi, dean, Cheung Kong School of Art and Design

He praises the school's liberal environment, excellent facilities and a faculty of "renowned masters", comprising a mixture of local and overseas educated artists.

Cheung Kong School's dean, Wang Shouzhi, is a design theory expert who built the design arm of the Guangzhou Academy in 1982. Since 1988, he has also been a professor of art theory and history at California's Art Centre College of Design.

"Now is the time to study design in China, when you can start working in the fastest-growing design market in the world," Professor Wang says.

"We started the creative design industries major in 2013 in response to market needs. The course has become very popular and our graduates are in high demand from mainland employers," he says.

Associate dean Heidi Lee Oi-yee, a Hong Kong performance arts graduate, contributes her extensive administration experience in the Hong Kong Repertory Theatre and the Hong Kong Dance Company to the school.

Apart from teaching arts appreciation, every year Lee arranges for a troupe of overseas actors, dancers and musicians to perform in Shantou University's "art season", which she launched in 2010, hoping to turn Shantou into an arts hub.

"Here, teachers and students thrive in an environment which gives lots of space, freedom and support for creativity," Lee says.

Shantou University, a product of national education reforms in the 1980s, is one of 100 "key" academic training bases for the architects of China's economy.

"China's rapid economic development, rich in 'hardware' resources, desperately needs the people 'software' - management skills, innovation and creativity," Lee says.

Having identified that the creative power of design fuels economic growth, the Chinese leadership is putting emphasis on design education, she adds.

Generally, local graduates of universities in China are "highly competitive" in the job market on both sides of the border, according to the Education Bureau. Employers value their international outlook, familiarity and strong network with mainland society.

Today design graduates can pursue diverse careers in commercial design as they apply their technical skills and aesthetics in the digital age to design, package and promote a product to the mass market.

"The boundaries are disappearing for designers who not only design and brand products but devise business strategies, solutions and services to meet clients' needs," Lee says.

Applications for the two mainland design schools' entrance exams are handled by HKEAA.