Hong Kong is a magnet for students from across the Asia-Pacific region as the city is home to some of the world’s best universities. It’s also a favorite destination for mainlanders wanting to study at a prestigious university without having to travel to the other side of the globe.
Data from the census and statistics department showed that the number of non-local students at local universities has been increasing over the past five years; from 15,151 in 2014-2015 to 18,060 in 2018-2019, accounting for about 18 percent of the total student population. Most non-local students come from the mainland – 12,322 in the 2018-2019 academic year.
Many favor the one-year master’s programs because they are both well recognized and cheaper, compared with those in Europe and the United States.
These students each pay between HK$100,000 and HK$200,000 in tuition fees – a significant amount of which is used to finance campus amenities, such as university libraries, career centers, sports facilities and offering a range of seminars by distinguished scholars and speakers to university lecture halls.
But the extradition bill crisis and the Covid-19 outbreak in the 2019-20 academic year have complicated students’ lives, with those enrolled in one-year master’s programs in Hong Kong only receiving 11 weeks of on-campus classes in the autumn semester and two weeks of face-to-face classes in the spring.
Student unions at six of the SAR’s eight public universities are seeking tuition fee refunds, with some citing the quality of online teaching.
Moreover, uneasiness about the unrest has reduced the number of students applying to SAR universities.
Yang Chao, a consultant of Mingxiaogongfang, an overseas education consulting company in the mainland that is based in multiple cities, said applications to universities in Hong Kong for the next academic year were “significantly influenced” by the social unrest.
Helping 300 to 500 mainland students to enroll in universities in Hong Kong each year, the company saw about 30 percent of students who initially applied for universities in Hong Kong opt to study in the UK instead.
“Those students who are still considering studying in Hong Kong tell us that they would not consider specific universities if the school’s students were active in the pro-democracy movement last year,” Yang said.
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the site of a 13-day protest in November, has seen the number of graduate applicants drop 30 percent lower than in previous years, said deputy president and provost Wai Ping-kong. The school has announced that applications for most of its postgraduate programs in the coming academic year will be extended by two months to June 30.
“It has become easier to get into universities in Hong Kong because they don’t have enough students, so the requirements are lower,” Yang said.
He said some master’s programs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong allow applicants whose International English Language Testing System score is under seven and Graduate Management Admission Test score is under 700 to join the interview. Last year, average IELTS and GMAT scores were 7.5 and over 700.
CUHK’s Sha Tin campus was one of the worst-hit, occupied by protesters for four days in November.
For Ruby Chen, a 23-year-old mainlander, the application process has become equally complicated. While she always planned to apply to universities in Hong Kong, her parents preferred her to study in the UK.
Although Chen received offers from both York and Newcastle universities, her trip to Britain was canceled after her parents worried about the “poor handling of the outbreak” there.
“My family and I followed the news about the epidemic in the UK every day and felt more and more at risk if I was to go there,” Chen said.
She applied for programs in Hong Kong in mid-March and is now waiting for results from her interview at PolyU. Despite being enrolled at Hong Kong Baptist University and having applied to Hong Kong City University, she prefers PolyU’s 1-year communication program as it offers internship opportunities.
“Sure, I’m worried as a mainlander who has opinions different from them, such as whether I would be treated unfairly or even be hurt,” Chen said.
“And I am also concerned if I can have a normal campus life in terms of the teaching quality if online teaching continues.”
“A starved camel is bigger than a horse,” Yang said in response to teaching concerns.
He also dismissed an online rumor that says Hong Kong graduates who return to the mainland to find jobs will be politically vetted.
“Going by the employment and internship situation of my students graduating this year, an educational background in Hong Kong has no negative influence. Recruitment is based on the ability of applicants,” he said.
U-turns have shown up. Yang said that since February, some students have signed new contracts with the company to apply to the universities in Hong Kong amid the global pandemic. And more students are coming to consult and sign up.
Chen has mixed feelings about the upcoming student life in Hong Kong: excited about quality teaching at an outstanding university and her first solo overseas experience and fear of possible social unrest in the future.
“It’s generally positive because I don’t have a lot of choices right now,” she said.
Yang said when some fearful students wanted to return to the mainland and finish the semester online last year, he persuaded them to stay.
His reasoning was that there would be a lot of companies looking for interns, but with few applicants.
As it turned out, he was right. Many of his students who stayed in Hong Kong got good internships and even jobs.
“Whether or not there will be social movements in Hong Kong in the future, I always tell my students that if there is a challenge, there will be an opportunity,” Yang said.
(This article was published at The Standard on May 19, 2020: Education: HK still a draw for mainlanders )