Friday, February 21, 2014, 10:20
Focus HK: The brain drain
By Hazel Knowles

Focus HK: The brain drain

Thousands of parents and students attended the British Council’s Education UK Exhibition last month to check out the 100 universities and schools exhibiting there.

A growing number of local students are choosing to study overseas — but is it because there are advantages to having a foreign education or because Hong Kong is failing to provide enough education opportunities? Hazel Knowles reports.

Jacob But has strong opinions about the higher education system in Hong Kong.

“I think it is collapsing. It is so competitive to get into Hong Kong universities because of the growth in population,” he said. “And I think the way of teaching in England is better.”

This is why, says But, he joined scores of other parents at the British Council’s Education UK Exhibition one weekend last month.

His mission was to find a university for his son, Ambrose, who will graduate from school this summer after sitting the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam.

If Ambrose succeeds in getting a place at a UK university, he will join the thousands of Hong Kong students already attending higher education institutions overseas.

According to an Education Bureau survey of Form Six students who had taken the DSE in 2012, more than 5 percent had headed overseas to further their education, with the UK being the most popular destination, followed by the Chinese mainland and then Australia.

In 2013, 13,065 Hong Kong students were studying in the UK according to figures released by the British Council on the opening day of the Education UK Exhibition. A further 8,600 were in Australia, predominantly in further education, and around 8,000 in the United States.

In 2012, there were 3,816 Hong Kong students with study visas in Canada, although the real number is believed to be higher because of those who have a Canadian passport and do not need a visa.

This year will see more Hong Kong students than ever moving to the UK to study with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. UCAS, the organization responsible for taking applications — already has recorded 6,781 applications for the 2014-15 academic year, a rise of 6.7 per cent over the same period last year and almost double the figure of 2009.

Focus HK: The brain drainEducation exodus

According to Professor Darryl Jarvis, an associate dean in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, there are multiple reasons behind the student brain drain.

“First, in terms of the job market, an overseas degree still goes a long way towards giving students a competitive advantage,” said Jarvis.

“This is Asian phenomenon which you also see in places like Singapore. Despite the fact that Asia has risen and put a lot of money into the higher education sector, a degree from a well-regarded western university still carries a lot of weight back home in terms of job opportunities.

“The other thing is that students, quite rightly so, want to move away and be independent and experience a completely different culture.

“The style of overseas institutions is very different from what we get in universities in Asia, which are not particularly diverse in their student composition.

“That’s not the case in a classroom in Australia, Canada or the US or the UK these days where there is a greater diversity with students from 20 to 40 different countries. That makes for a very exciting classroom and a stimulating student environment, which is a great way to learn.”

Unfortunately, despite some international students from places like Australia and the UK who come in under student exchange programs, Hong Kong universities do not offer that kind of cultural diversity with students being mainly Hong Kong or mainland Chinese, said Jarvis.

Cultural mix

Charles Létang, of the Consulate General of Canada in Hong Kong, said it was exactly this multi-cultural mix that made Canadian universities appealing to Hong Kong students.

Canada’s safe living environment and the high level of accountability, teaching standards, the cutting edge technology and research laboratories at education institutions were also a draw, he said.

“What’s more, tuition and living costs are very competitive when comparing top ranking destinations for study abroad,” he said.

However, there is also another reason, say experts, which suggests Hong Kong is failing to provide further education opportunities for young students: Quite simply, there are not enough university places to go round in Hong Kong.

According to the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, last year 28,418 students gained the minimum requirements to get into university with the new DSE.

However, with only 15,000 subsidized first-year places available, 13,000 of the students who achieved satisfactory grades were left out, leaving them facing the choice of paying full-tuition, opting for a sub degree course or looking overseas.

The British Council’s Sophia Chan-Combrink said a survey conducted at last year’s exhibition found that for most Hong Kong parents, the first choice for their children was a Hong Kong university. However, the shortage of places meant they had to look at other options.

“There is a hierarchy of preference for parents and Hong Kong universities and public-funded places are number one for various reasons such as economics and allowing students to stay close to family,” said Chan-Combrink.

“Their second choice is overseas. We (UK universities) fill the gap because there are not enough local places.”

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