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Hong Kong encourages its students to enter mainland universities
By Macau Mak and Sherry Tsui

Charles Sin Kwok-ching is in the third year of his history degree at Peking University. “I used to criticise them, and I thought they were conservative,” he says of his mainland classmates, “but now I know more, I know why they are like that. Even if you don’t agree with them, you can understand them more,” says the Hong Konger.

Sin did well in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) in 2010, scoring four As and four Bs. He applied to the History Department of Peking University and was accepted.

Charles Lee
Charles Sin Kwok-ching, decided that rather than facing public exams in Hong Kong, he would study in Peking University.

In order to attract outstanding students, in 2004, the Ministry of Education (MoE) authorised Peking University and Tsinghua University to exempt Hong Kong students from taking the Mainland’s Joint Entrance Examination. In 2006, Fudan University followed suit.

For Sin, studying history at Peking University was a long-held goal because of the institution’s prestige and high ranking. But he concedes the fear of taking Hong Kong public examinations was a push factor. “I didn’t want to take the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE). I heard many people saying HKALE is very terrible,” he says.

Hong Kong’s public examinations are highly competitive and getting the grades needed to fulfill the minimum requirements to get into a local university far from guarantees a place. So it is hardly surprising that students are increasingly looking to universities in the Mainland as an alternative.

In the 2012/2013 academic year, the MoE and Hong Kong’s Education Bureau collaborated to launch the Scheme for Admission of Hong Kong Students to Mainland Higher Education Institutions. Under the scheme, Hong Kong students are exempted from taking the Mainland’s Joint Entrance Examination. In the first year, 63 mainland institutions joined and this year, the number has been expanded to 75. More than 6,500 students have applied since the scheme started and around 2,200 have been given offers.

In this year’s Policy Address, the government further announced the Mainland University Study Subsidy Scheme to encourage Hong Kong students to study in the Mainland. The plan offers students on the Admission Scheme a means-tested bursary of up to HK$15,000 per year during their study period. There is no quota on the number of students who can benefit and payments will begin in the 2014/15 academic year.

Executive Councillor Starry Lee Wai-king, who is also a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong legislator, supports the scheme. She says there are a lot of advantages to studying in the Mainland. For instance, students can gain greater understanding of Chinese culture and the mindset of people in the Mainland, as well as build up personal networks. “To know the way of thinking of the mainlanders, you have to stay there and communicate with them. Going to their schools to study is the fastest and most straight forward method,” says Lee.

Yetta Chan Yee-suen, 19, satisfied the minimum requirements for entry to local universities but her grades were not high enough to earn her a place. In Hong Kong, her options were to study for an associate degree or a Higher Diploma.

She chose to study journalism at Jinan University in Guangzhou instead and finds that after spending time studying in the Mainland, she has a stronger sense of belonging to China.

However, she still experiences culture shock. “One day, I was eating a meal with a close friend from the northeastern part of China. As it happened to be June 4th, I mentioned the June 4th Incident,” says Chan. “Yet, my friend had never heard of it, I was so surprised.” Chan says that when she explained it to him, her friend asked her to keep her voice down.

The lack of freedom of speech is one of the things that Hong Kong students face when studying in the Mainland, another thing they quickly become aware of is the reach of the Communist Party.

Diana Yu Suet-hung is a second year student at the Food Safety and Quality Department at Southwest University in Chongqing. Yu has made friends with some party members and party members-to- be. She believes it is useful to know party members because you can seek help from them when you are in trouble. “In China, we have a saying: Knowing people is better than knowing words,” Yu says.

Yu is the one of the first batch of students studying in the Mainland under the Admission Scheme in the 2012/2013 academic year. She left because her A-level results were unsatisfactory. “I could study in the Institute of Vocational Education (IVE) in Hong Kong, but there are too many students with such qualifications,” she says.

She says she is happy with her studies because there is little pressure and her schoolmates and teachers often take care of Hong Kong students. “The learning environment is better than Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, students revise only one day before the exam. There are these kinds of students in China too, but the majority of them are very hard working,” says Yu.

Both Yu and Yetta Chan say they find their mainland classmates to be industrious but lacking in creativity. Chan King-ming, associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says he also finds that mainland students tend to be more motivated and dedicated, but more rigid.

 Chan King-ming, Associate Professor in Department of Biochemistry of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chan King-ming, Associate Professor in Department of Biochemistry of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chan, who frequently comments on education and social issues, says the mainland education system emphasises recitation and memorisation, even at university level. He says this may be a contributing factor to students’ lack of spontaneity.

For Chan, another concern about studying in the Mainland is the lack of academic freedom which affects professionalism and academic independence. Funding for many research projects comes from the government, so there may be no-go areas. “For example, research about pollution. Maybe pollution is already a top secret of the country,” says Chan, “though everyone knows how serious the pollution problem in China is.”

Chan thinks the Admission Scheme and cash allowances for students may be more about serving a political agenda, rather than educational purposes. “I think the Leung Chun-ying government is overdoing it; is explicitly encouraging students to go to the Mainland and contribute there,” says Chan.

However, the principal of Heung To College of Professional Studies, Kenneth Law Wing-cheung believes greater integration is inevitable and will provide Hong Kong’s youngsters with more opportunities. His institution is an intermediary organisation for admitting Hong Kong students to mainland universities.

Law observes that in recent years, Hong Kong students are flocking to the Mainland to study subjects like Chinese medicine, business administration, accounting and law. “If we don’t understand the development in China, it’ll be a loss to us,” says Law, who thinks it is better for students to have knowledge about the Mainland regardless of whether they want to work for Chinese or local companies.

As an example of the opportunities offered by the mainland market, Law says the box office in China reached Rmb21.77 billion in 2013.

With his eyes on the prize, 19-year-old Ronald Li Ho-ting rejected the offer of a place at the Department of Journalism of the Baptist University and chose film studies at Beijing Normal University instead.

Li thinks there is a bigger and more diverse market for drama and the performing arts in Beijing. Theatre companies from all over the world flock to the capital to perform and the cultural ambiance is far better than in Hong Kong, he says.

But that does not mean there is greater artistic freedom. Li was a member of the Drama Society at his university, which planned to perform a play about the Cultural Revolution for an inter-varsity competition. But despite months of rehearsals, the production was banned by a senior professor.

For Li, this was an act of self-censorship. Yet, he says it is essential to know the hidden rules and figure out ways to survive in the Mainland where, unlike in Hong Kong, not everything is written in black and white.

While some Hong Kongers are trying to unlock the secret to surviving in a society that lacks freedom, many mainland students are studying in Hong Kong. Lucy Lan Shi-ying, 20, a third year maths student at CUHK, enjoys the academic environment and freedom of speech here. Lan says that on mainland campuses, people may not say what they really think and seldom discuss sensitive topics.

Even as the government and others extol the virtues of studying in the Mainland, it seems there are those who appreciate the Hong Kong university experience. Lan says she has no regrets about missing out on opportunities to establish mainland networks that could advance her career.

As Ip Kin-yuen, legislator for the education functional constituency sees it, the government should be putting more resources into providing more tertiary education places here in Hong Kong, rather than sending students out. For instance, he thinks there should be more support for associate degree programmes. Ip says fees for these programmes can be up to HK$68,000 but students receive little financial support from the government. He questions the priorities in the use of public resources.

What is more, he thinks students who leave to study in the Mainland have a higher tendency to stay behind to work there, which may add to Hong Kong’s labour shortage woes. Instead of offering cash incentives for students to study in the Mainland, Ip says we should be asking the following questions: Should China be a solution? Why not Hong Kong itself? And why is only China being touted as a solution? Why not Taiwan and other places?

Jack Qiu Linchuan, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at CUHK, agrees with Ip. Qiu thinks students would learn much better in Taiwan, especially for those studying journalism. “Traditional Chinese is used there, you can learn Mandarin too, and you can enjoy more freedom,” he says.

Qiu, who is from the Mainland and graduated from Peking University in 1997, did his graduate studies in Hong Kong and the United States. He is negative about the education system in China. “Schools are the microcosm of the society; they are hypocritical, they look like they are doing good, but in fact they are doing the opposite. I think Hong Kong people should not learn from this,” Qiu says.

Having studied in both the Mainland and Hong Kong, Qiu questions the government’s initiative to send students to study in the Mainland. “I don’t understand, I think it is a waste of the tax payers’ money,” he says.

Edited by Natalie Tsoi