South China Morning Post recently came out with a series of fascinating articles on the state of education in Hong Kong. As Hong Kong struggles to become an international education hub, HK media is reporting on the overwhelmingly increasing number of non-local students dominating the research positions in Hong Kong’s top universities. What does non-local mean? mainly mainland students. Here’s from "Non-locals lead way in campus research slots" (when, oh, when, will SCMP open up their news service to all audiences?):
More than half the places on research programmes at Hong Kong’s universities are filled by non-locals – overwhelmingly mainlanders – and mainland students dominate several key research fields, in one case filling more than 85 per cent of places. […]
In 2007-08, of 5,871 students admitted by the eight tertiary institutions for postgraduate research, 52 per cent were from the mainland and 3.2 per cent from overseas. In 2003-04, mainlanders made up 36 per cent of postgraduate admissions, the University Grants Committee says. The number of overseas research students has hovered around 200 during this period.
With average funding of HK$350,000 from the committee for every research postgraduate student, more than HK$2 billion in public funds has been spent on maintaining the city’s research strength. […]
Each student is said to cost the Hongkongnese 350,000HK$? let’s see – with a stipend of 13000HK$ a month for 10 months a year, assuming 3-4 years of PG studies – ~400,000HK$. Yeah, that’s sounds about right, but in some newspapers it’s quoted as per year. Strange.
At the University of Hong Kong, the proportion of research students from the mainland increased from 32.2 per cent in 2003-04 to 43.8 per cent last year. Its share of full-time PhD students from the mainland increased from 49.4 per cent to 59.2 per cent. The proportion at Chinese University has also increased steadily over the past three years – from 43 per cent to 53 per cent. […]
The situation at HKUST MGTO program is quite similar. We now have 3 international PhD students, myself included, 7 mainlanders (including Macau), and 2 local students.
Why so few local HK PGs? are universities favoring mainlanders?
Universities generally fill their research programmes with students they consider best qualified, without regard to their origin. The committee’s secretary general, Michael Stone, said research places should be open for competition and he disapproved of any suggestion of setting a quota for locals. […]
But universities say there is no admission policy that favours mainland students. City University’s associate dean, Hui Yer-van, said it did not distinguish applicants by their country of origin. They were all assessed by their quality, and candidates must demonstrate their research capability and experience.
"Our [local] students are not bad at all," Professor Hui said. "They have a first-class honours degree, and some have been working as research assistants and have demonstrated an aptitude in academic research by having played a part in producing academic papers."
Then why aren’t local HK enroll to research PG programs?
Wong Wing-shing, a professor at Chinese University, said local undergraduates tended to apply for taught postgraduate programmes. When they decided to pursue research, many applied for PhD or MPhil places at universities overseas.
Before joining HKUST, I remember reading some of the official stats of the university claiming there are 60-70% international students on campus. You could imagine my surprise when I came for my first visit at HKUST to talk to some professors and just based on appearances and language used I couldn’t make out where the majority of international students are. As I brought this up with one local professor during our coffee meeting and asked – "So, where are all the international students?", he looked around and replied – "what ever do you mean? they’re all around you – he’s from mainland, she’s from mainland, that group over there is definitely not local, probably from northern China". I finally got the point.
If you consider just how many international students there are in Hong Kong, and I’m talking non-local non-mainland, you’ll actually realize the numbers are very low, maybe even lower than Taiwan’s. Unofficial numbers say that HKUST has between 150-250 full-time international students on campus, out of ~10,000. Surely, there are a lot of exchange students, both undergrads and masters level (usually MBAs), but I believe it’s safe to say that although they contribute to the international feeling in the campus those students contribute very little academically – perhaps even lower the academic standards as their commitment is more towards exploring the beaches, travelling, hanging out and making the most of HK – and this is what exchange should be about.
So, back to the question of internationalization – how do you create a truly more international diverse education atmosphere in HK? Well, HK’s got big plans. Here’s from a story at China Daily’s HK edition "Wanted: foreign PhD students" (bold not in original text):
The University Grants Committee plans to offer up to 135 scholarships a year for elite students across the globe wishing to pursue doctoral studies in the city, beginning with the next school year.
The scholarships would cost the committee about HK$50 million a year, said its secretary-general Michael Stone.
Each successful candidate would be awarded HK$20,000 a month to cover tuition fees and living expenses as well as an allowance of some HK$10,000 a year for study-related trips, committee member Roland Chin Tai-hong said.
"We would like to attract elite students worldwide," said professor Chin. "A grant of HK$20,000 a month is not too much. The scholarship we offer must be attractive enough to compete for elite students with institutions like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)." […]
Foreign students are most welcome, he said. "Currently, most postgraduate students in the city are Hongkongers and mainlanders. If more foreigners study in Hong Kong, it will bring ideological shocks that will benefit both local and mainland students," said professor Chin.
He also hoped the students winning the scholarships would work in Hong Kong when they graduate. […]
Tsang also announced last year intent to provide a one-off grant of HK$18 billion to set up a Research Endowment Fund. He said the fund and its investment earnings would replace the existing annual funding granted by the government to the research grants council of the University Grants Committee.
That’s huge numbers. Post-docs in HK currently get 20,000HK$, so that will bring PhDs up to the same studentship level as the post-docs with some travel stipends. Somehow, I can’t imagine either Israel or Taiwan offering 10,000NIS/m or 80,000NT$/m to incoming PhDs, and especially when it comes to Israel – general cost of living for a student in HK is much lower than it is in Israel.
More? sure, here’s from today’s SCMP "Grants chief wants more non-locals in universities" (bold not in original text) :
Despite the preponderance of non-local students doing postgraduate research at Hong Kong’s universities, the man in charge of allocating the universities’ resources thinks they are still not international enough.
"Not only should we have more students from different countries, we should have more professors from different parts of the world and have research collaboration with the good institutions around the world," said Michael Stone, secretary general of the University Grants Committee. […]
While the proportion of all non-local postgraduate research students increased from 39 per cent to 55 per cent between 2003-04 and 2007-08, the majority were from the mainland. In 2007-08, fewer than 6 per cent were from overseas.
Early this month, the committee’s Research Grants Council announced the establishment of a scholarship scheme to attract top research talent from around the world to boost local research capability.
The scheme, which is to start in the 2010-11 academic year and is estimated to cost HK$50 million a year, will offer about 135 scholarships each year.
Mr Stone said the Heads of Universities Committee had also agreed to hold a symposium in September to examine further measures of "internationalisation". But one practical barrier was a lack of accommodation for overseas students. […]
Most HK universities are trying very hard to attract foreign academic talent, usually not very successfully :
In fact, some universities are making efforts to attract overseas students. Professor of management sciences Hui Yer-van said City University staged regular promotional activities, and faculty members with connections overseas often asked their contacts for nominations.
University of Hong Kong pro-vice-chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang said it set aside some of its research places – fewer than 5 per cent – for overseas research students, to encourage internationalisation.
HKU social work professor Joe Leung Cho-bun said his department would receive additional funding for extra staffing and research expenses if good overseas research students were admitted.
He said that of 10 non-local students for the 13 full-time social work PhD spots admitted in the current year, seven were from the mainland and the others from Malaysia, the US and Australia.
But I think the most interesting read today was a SCMP editorial on the subject – "Non-local students an invaluable asset" (bold not in original text):
Hong Kong’s search for ways of expanding its growth potential has naturally zeroed in on the education sector. There is good reason for such a focus: at the highest levels of academic endeavour, we have universities with an international reputation for excellence. This is a sound base from which to work towards making our city a regional learning and teaching centre. To reach such a goal, though, we must not forget the necessary prerequisites.
Good academic staff are instrumental. Over the past two decades, as Hong Kong’s higher-education provision grew, the government and the institutions realised that top academics would not come to teach unless they also had the opportunities and resources to conduct research here. With increasing funding for research and postgraduate programmes, a pool of well-qualified professors is now teaching at our universities.
Staffing is only part of the equation. To become an education hub, we also need top-class students. Hong Kong has just 7 million people, and our declining birth rate means ever-smaller numbers of potential candidates. The net has to be cast far and wide to bring students here with an interest in expanding their educational horizons to the highest possible potential.
As we report today, our universities have been quite successful in moving in this direction. The majority of students in research programmes and studying for doctorates are non-local. Most are from the mainland; in some cases, overwhelmingly so.
The imbalance is easy to understand. The mainland has a big pool of students who want to go elsewhere to study. Hong Kong is favoured by some because it is culturally close. Hong Kong students have historically preferred either to join the workforce or go overseas to further their studies.
We should not be worried about such circumstances. What is important is that when it comes to higher-level tertiary studies, local and non-local students are given equal opportunities to bid for places. To do otherwise would damage attempts at promoting our city as a centre of educational excellence.
Our objective, after all, should be to attract the best and brightest. Mainland students are welcome, but so, too, must be those from countries in the region. Graduate students from South and Southeast Asia prefer European and North American universities. Perceptions of Hong Kong as an expensive city in which to live have to be countered by attractive fee and accommodation packages. Research and doctorate programmes more appealing to such students have to be introduced. Several of our universities have already sent teams to regional capitals to promote their postgraduate programmes. They have to be commended for their foresight.
Hong Kong needs to adapt to the ever-changing economic climate. We have to find new ways of raising revenue. Education is one bright spot. We will not lose from having mainland and foreign students studying here. Whether they continue to live and work here after completing their degrees makes little difference. The links they provide to the world beyond our borders will, in themselves, prove invaluable to our future development.
I believe that’s a very good summary of the issue : excellence is key, internationalization as a key factor in promoting excellence, and education excellence as a driving force for economy and society.
There is also opposition, calling for more emphasis on the locals with quotas set to ensure universities are not being over-run, and that might be a concern when we’re talking about the growing middle class of almost half a billion mainlanders that are now looking for close-by, affordable, world class education, but there is still a big gap when it comes to non-local non-mainlander students and this is partly what the universities are trying to promote.
Hopefully, more on the topic later. Your thoughts are most welcome.