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Hong Kong's growing shortage of university places

Written by
Matt Fleming

As more than 13,000 students who qualified for a university place in Hong Kong this summer are denied a spot due to space shortages, Samuel Lai explores our city’s higher education crisis

University places should be available to all those who qualified for them because of their ability and attainment,” declared Lord Robbins in the 1960s, the then head of the economics department at the London School of Economics. A bit more than half a century later, however, that ideal is far from the reality in Hong Kong. Over the years, the city has seen an increasing number of students excelling at school, attaining the minimum required scores to attend university. But at the same time, the available publicly funded university places have been frozen, leading to a discrepancy between the number of students reaching the requisite standard and the number actually getting a place at a local university. This summer saw this gap rise to its greatest ever level.

In August, after a nail-biting summer for thousands of secondary school students, the results of the city’s Joint University Programmes Admissions System rolled out, with 28,418 meeting the minimum university entry requirements. However, more than 13,000 – nearly half – of them were not offered a place at a government-funded university. Many such students look abroad. But for those unable to afford this, there are few options. Indeed, one student allegedly committed suicide by jumping off a building when she heard the news, leading to calls from enraged education experts for a solution to this escalating crisis.

“It upsets me every year to see so many students who are qualified to enter university being denied a place,” says Cheng Kai-ming, chairman of education at Hong Kong University. “We can’t let generation after generation of students be sacrificed due to the lack of university places.”

Since 1994, the number of publically funded degree places has been frozen at a maximum of 15,000. This translates to space for a mere 18 percent of our city’s teenagers to study at a government-funded institution – the lowest admission rate out of HK, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore. “This is a very low rate by developed country standards,” says Cheng. In contrast, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (which includes the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and Sweden) boast, on average, places for 68 percent of their teenage population. “Even Singapore has a rate of 26 percent!” exclaims Cheng.

Experts fear that Hong Kong’s low university acceptance rate could make our city lose its competitive edge. “A knowledge-based economy such as Hong Kong depends on an educated population,” says Ip Kin-yuen, LegCo member for education. “While the governments of other Asian countries are looking to increase the number of their universities, we have remained in this static position for nearly 20 years. How can Hong Kong compete in the future?”

Some experts are also concerned that the lack of publicly funded university places could add to inequality and intergenerational poverty, hindering social upward mobility in our city. Hong Kong’s richest teenagers have 3.7 times the chance of enrolling in a university than the poorest, according to a study conducted earlier this year by the Hong Kong Institute of Education. “Education with equal opportunity is an important vehicle for social mobility – but that has deteriorated in the past two decades,” says Professor Chou Kee-lee, who conducted the research. Many qualified poor students who meet the minimum university entry requirements can’t continue their studies as local universities shut them out, he says. “While the rich have the option to study abroad, the poor have no alternative.” 

The government stresses that it has been investing heavily in education for the purpose of nurturing human capital. “Education is the largest spending area of the Government’s total expenditure,” says a government spokesperson, emphasising that the government has, in the past decade, significantly expanded the post-secondary education sector. He says: “Taking both undergraduate degree and    sub-degree places together, we expect that almost 70 per cent of our young people will have access to post-secondary education.”

This looks rather good on paper. However, the problem, according to some, is that this expansion of post-secondary education has been almost exclusively in the self-financed sector, which mainly provides two-year sub-degree programmes. “It’s the result of the policy launched in 2000 by former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who aimed to increase the participation rate in post-secondary education to 60 per cent in 10 years,” says Ip. While government-funded university slots remained at 15,000, self-financed sub-degree places have increased more than tenfold – from 2,468 13 years ago to today’s near 30,000. Says Ip: “The government wants to expand the post-secondary education sector without putting in a large amount of extra resources. It’s pushing the responsibility of developing our city’s tertiary education to market forces.” 

This, according to him, leads to commercialisation of schools and could compromise the quality of these programmes. Moreover, it is putting a burden on poorer students, undermining the sub-degree programmes’ ability to increase social upward mobility. “As government support is very limited, the majority of these sub-degree institutions’ finance come from tuition fees. In other words, students have to bear the cost,” says Ip. “Many students carry a massive debt even before they graduate, some amounting to more than $200,000.”

The government also points out that it is expecting student numbers to fall. “We forecast the number of Form Six students to fall from 71,700 this year to 59,400 in three years,” says a government spokesperson. This means that in a few years’ time, the university space shortage problem may ease, at least for a little bit. Nevertheless, experts maintain that Hong Kong should still be expanding university slots in the long run. “There are more than 50 universities in cities like New York, London and Boston, providing tertiary education to students from around the globe. This is what a modern metropolis should be like,” says Cheng. “We can’t be satisfied with just enough spaces for local students. We ought to look to accommodate elite international students as well. Hong Kong should aim to be an education hub.”

Alternatives to university

Sub-degree programmes include Associate Degrees, Higher Diplomas and Professional Diplomas, with diplomas being more vocational, and Associate Degrees focusing more on general education. Entry to a sub-degree usually requires a Level 2 in five HKDSE subjects, or equivalent. Associate Degrees take two years and are equivalent to a third of a three-year degree course, meaning holders are able to join ‘full’ degree courses in the second year of the programme.  

Yi Jin Diploma
The new Yi Jin Diploma caters for S6 leavers and adult learners, providing an ‘alternative pathway’ to higher education. Yi Jin aims to give a practical learning experience, bolstered by practical modules and field trips. The whole diploma takes one year and has 600 hours of contact time in core modules such as English, Chinese, Maths and Liberal Studies, as well as three elective modules. 

Vocational Training Council (VTC)
The VTC is the largest provider of Vocational Training in Hong Kong for adult learners and school leavers, providing skills to up to 250,000 students every year. The VTC also serves to advise the government on ways to maintain local vocational training, in order to keep Hong Kong’s economy strong. 

Youth Employment and Training Programme (YETP)
The YETP is a job-search and training platform for young school leavers, aged 15-24, who have achieved education at sub-degree level or below.  Admission is free and, once signed up, participants are able to join in with educational workshops and training courses, as well as receive a small training allowance if their attendance is over 80 percent. 

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