Universities vie for shrinking students

Editorial | Mary Ma 24 Sep 2021

All of a sudden, access to local university education seems to have become smoother with two recent developments.

First, the launch of the School Nominations Direct Admission Scheme; and second, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology offering scholarships to previously ineligible students.

Probably due to the pandemic, there has been an inflation in public exam results from the International Baccalaureate to the Diploma of Secondary Education.

Generally speaking, university education is no longer as remote, even for average achievers.

Yesterday's announcement of the nomination scheme by the Education Bureau was timely.

Although the review paving the way for the SNDAS was commissioned in 2017, the launch of the scheme comes as the SAR faces a decrease in its student population due to a steady trend of migration and fewer students coming over from the mainland.

Naturally, universities are also coming under greater pressure to fill up places with the best possible students remaining in the pool.

For instance, HKUST is adding bonus points to the top scores of 5, 5* and 5** two years after its major competitors - the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University - did the same. In addition, HKUST is also lowering the threshold for scholarship from 5** to 5* in one subject.

With fewer choices to select from to fill a constant number of places, competition between universities for top scorers has become keener than ever.

It remains to be seen whether the phenomenon is temporary or long lasting.

Under the new nomination scheme, each local secondary school can nominate up to two outstanding students to apply to study one of the 140 designated undergraduate programs. The applicants are interviewed and, if successful, given firm offers.

This arrangement is separate from the Joint University Programmes Admissions System, commonly known as JUPAS, which depends on DSE results.

All along, universities have been able to exercise discretion in admitting students considered to have special talent. The new scheme institutionalizes the practice and that is certainly good news to young people whose talent may be not properly assessed by the DSE.

If it was a sellers' market in the past, it is now a buyers' market with universities sparing no efforts to get the best "customers" in the market to fill up places.

Perhaps this also gives policymakers an opportunity to review the local exam-based education system with a view to stopping cramming pupils with textbook knowledge to, instead, include greater aspects in personal growth.

Examples in the West can be a meaningful reference whereby, apart from grades, a student's general aspects are also weighed before an offer is made.

Skills and independent thinking are encouraged, and even how a student overcomes difficult times during childhood is appreciated.

Meanwhile, it is foreseeable that more local schools will follow Pui Kiu College's steps to open branches in Shenzhen or the Greater Bay Area.

As some Hongkongers move overseas, a number of residents from those areas also move inland.

The challenging time for universities may have just begun.

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October 2021

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