Covid's surprise boon to HK unis

Technology | Cara Chen 23 Jun 2020

Hong kong's universities may unwittingly reap some benefits from the Covid-19 outbreak in the days ahead. Despite the months-long social unrest last year that turned several campuses into battlegrounds, the epidemic abroad has encouraged mainland students, who form a large part of postgraduate programs, to apply to the city's universities.

The impact of Covid-19 goes beyond that, as the city's top universities are using PhD scholarships to attract top students who previously received offers from top global universities but have not yet accepted or have declined the offers due to the outbreak.

On May 22, the University of Hong Kong said on mainland microblogging website Weibo that its graduate school will offer up to HK$1.55 million in scholarships to help outstanding students pursue their PhD studies.

On the website of the HKU presidential PhD scholarship, it says some prospective students may not be able to commence their studies as planned and the school's full-time PhD program with a competitive scholarship package is a good alternative.

The package will offer each admitted scholar up to HK$404,000 in the first year and HK$384,000 in every subsequent year.

Those interested should submit their applications by June 30.

A finance committee paper from the Legislative Council said HKU had 1,603 non-local PhD students in the 2019/20 academic year. Of these, 1,399 were mainland students.

Meanwhile, the City University of Hong Kong enrolled 1,326 PhD students in the same year, of which mainland students accounted for 76.2 percent, about 1,011, and local students only 5.7 percent.

On June 16, CityU also announced new scholarships worth HK$1.56 million, targeting the same group of scholars as HKU but with specific study divisions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

CityU said that STEM areas are closely related to the research agenda that is part of the school's five-year strategic plan, including health, digital society, smart city, matter and brain, fields in which CityU has excelled in recent years.

For the full-time four-year PhD program, each awardee will receive a scholarship of HK$26,600 per month and 50 percent coverage of the tuition fee. A travel allowance of HK$8,000 per month, for up to a year, will be offered in support of research-related work outside Hong Kong. Applications for scholarships will close on July 15.

The Chinese University is the last to join the fray for outstanding PhD students who might need to change their plans, announcing on June 17 that the vice-chancellor's PhD scholarship scheme will offer an award of HK$80,000 and studentships of HK$216,300 per annum. Applications will close on June 30.

The fierce competition for talent is not just about the value of scholarships. While the review of the PhD application in overseas universities usually takes one to six months, some programs in CUHK, CityU, PolyU and HKUST have launched fast track PhD application programs, promising to complete the review within a week.

"In recent years, intense global competition for talent has combined with a decline in the labor force in Hong Kong," Joshua Mok Ka-ho, vice president of Lingnan University and Lam Man Tsan chair professor of comparative policy, said.

"It is good news for Hong Kong that the universities are increasing their scholarships, which will attract a lot of talent."

He added that due to the impact of the epidemic overseas, parents and students are worried about studying in Britain and the United States, while Asia has become one of the most popular destinations for further study among mainland students.

Taking Lingnan University as an example, Mok thought the social unrest last year and the epidemic in recent months would have a significant impact on admissions.

However, he did not expect it would lead to a rise in the number of applications.

Mok noted this was likely due to students taking into consideration the epidemic raging in Europe, visa restrictions in the US and better containment of the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.

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