Demand for study abroad shifting as education reforms take hold in Hong Kong

Today we are pleased to present an ICEF Monitor interview with Dr Edward Wong, director of the Milton International Education Group (MIEG) in Hong Kong. Dr Wong’s company, founded in 1999, serves both as a recruitment agency sending students abroad to primarily English-speaking countries and as a partner with international universities offering programmes in Hong Kong.

In the interview below, Dr Wong addresses the changes to Hong Kong’s education system, which align it more with those in the US and China than with that in the UK. The reforms have seen Hong Kong:

  • Dispense with the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (more commonly known as the GCE A Level);
  • Introduce the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE);
  • Shorten the number of years in primary/secondary education to 12 years (from 13 years, which is the norm in the UK);
  • Extend undergraduate education from three to four years – moving it closer to the US model.

Dr Wong talks about the effects the reforms are having among parents of school-aged children in Hong Kong and on study abroad trends, and he also speaks to the greater harmonisation now occurring between Hong Kong and China as a result.

Moving to the DSE: confusion now, consolidation in the future

Hong Kong has long been considering changing the structure, curriculum, and guiding philosophy of its school system. The system had been criticised for its competitiveness and the stress this caused for parents and students, for elitism, and for an emphasis on rote learning and academics to the detriment of personal development.

On top of this, there were natural problems that arose when Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China in 1997, ending its status as a British colony. A school system more aligned with the British model than the Chinese one was awkward given Hong Kong’s new ties with China, not to mention China’s growing economy and global power.

In 2009, a new educational structure was adopted, and in 2012, the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) replaced the old HKCEE and HKALE examinations. This examination switch, along with the shortening of the years required to complete secondary school and an overall curriculum content shift, has created a current climate of stress and confusion for students and their families – Dr Wong describes the situation as “chaotic.”

Last year, we wrote about the pressures the changing school system exerted on Hong Kong high-school leavers, who in 2013 composed a much larger-than-usual cohort due to some of them taking DSE after three years alongside those taking the old exam after the traditional four. This cohort then faced much more competition to get into limited spaces in Hong Kong’s universities.

Our prediction was that this would create more demand for study abroad, and interestingly, this is occurring in the very market from which Hong Kong is distancing its system: the UK.

A study by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) shows that 4,600 Hong Kong students chose the United Kingdom as a destination for undergraduate studies during 2012/13, a sharp rise of 24% compared to 2011/12. The UK also received 4% more graduate students from Hong Kong in this time frame. This is despite UK higher education institutions’ higher fees of late, and generally tighter immigration laws affecting international students. It is also amidst a context in England where overseas student numbers fell 1% to 307,205, the first fall in 29 years.

The South China Morning Post attributes the rise in Hong Kong students going to the UK to a reaction among their parents to the new DSE: many are suspicious. The Post quotes Cyrus Lin Ka-fai, a programme consultant at Hong Kong overseas study centre Education First, as saying that many parents have no confidence in the DSE diploma and that:

“Hong Kong parents trust British education. Hong Kong people are emotionally attached to the country.”

Possible surge in younger students’ families opting for study abroad

In our interview, Dr Wong acknowledges the upset and confusion Hong Kong’s new education reforms – especially the transition to the DSE – are causing among students’ families, and feels that the situation could spur more and more families to send their children away earlier – as early as Grade 10 – for study abroad. Such a trend would mirror one we have already reported on in China. In one year alone (2010/11) the percentage of Chinese overseas students with less than a high school education rose from 20% to 23%.

Some reports are also finding growing demand for international schools in Hong Kong, as early as kindergarten.

Dr Wong guesses that it will take a little time for the government to straighten out the kinks associated with the switchover to the DSE.

Hong Kong and China establishing closer links

Dr Wong explains that he is noticing more interest among Hong Kong students for study abroad programmes in Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada. He says he will not be surprised if China grows in popularity as a destination, especially given China’s recent decision to allow DSE-armed Hong Kong students to use the diploma for entry to Chinese universities – without having to sit the gaokao entrance examination.

Education is not the only area in which Hong Kong and China are establishing closer links. Hong Kong, a respected international financial centre, is also being a “supportive partner,” according to the Global Times, in driving China’s financial reforms. China has recently opened up its capital markets, allowing cross-market trading by mainland and Hong Kong investors on the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges.

Opportunities for international educators

Dr Wong sees demand for many forms of study abroad among Hong Kong students, primarily summer schools, work and travel, high schools, and universities. He comments that advertising in Hong Kong can be very expensive while yielding unimpressive results, and recommends instead that international educators have a presence at education fairs in Hong Kong, via agents or otherwise.

The ride isn’t over

It will take some time for the dust to settle regarding Hong Kong’s education reforms. For example, while Hong Kong universities currently have too little capacity to absorb the territory’s high school students, by 2016 this situation will reverse. The Hong Kong Education Bureau predicts that by 2016 there will be approximately 23,200 university places for 22,000 students expected to meet entry requirements.

Such overcapacity will likely see Hong Kong, already a respected destination for international students, step up its marketing and competitive advantages still further.



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