Hong Kong Shares Details on Education Reforms and Desire for Academic Hub Status

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews

A high-level delegation of education leaders from Hong Kong toured the United States this month, stopping in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco to strengthen ties with universities, government officials and international education organizations, while also drawing attention to major educational reforms currently underway in the Special Administrative Region of China.

In early May, the delegation, led by Permanent Secretary for Education Raymond Wong, stopped by the New York offices of World Education Services to discuss Hong Kong’s new academic structure and the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, which will fully replace A-level examinations by 2012. Welcoming the Hong Kong delegation were Mariam Assefa, Executive Director of WES, and Margarita Sianou, Deputy Executive Director of Evaluations, among other WES representatives.

Hong Kong is currently in the midst of an overhaul of its academic structures and qualifications, a move that is designed to better prepare students from the region for an increasingly globalized world. Under the reforms, Hong Kong is introducing a broader and more balanced three-year curriculum in senior secondary education, in place since September 2009 and to be fully implemented by 2012; a new public examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Examination; and an expanded four-year undergraduate program (from three years).

Curriculum changes at the secondary level are designed to extend students’ lifelong learning capabilities and boost core competencies required by the new global economy, such as communication skills, creative and critical thinking skills, global outlook, interpersonal skills, and English fluency. The new four-year undergraduate degree will build on the new secondary curriculum by continuing to focus on intellectual capability rather than individual specialization. To this end, students will take more elective and generalist classes for a broader overall base of studies, while experiential learning outside the classroom will also be emphasized.

Hong Kong as a Regional and Global Education Hub

In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Secretary Wong explained that the ongoing education reforms are part of a continuing effort to turn the Chinese territory into a center for academic excellence in Southeast Asia. In addition, the territory is seeking to build stronger global partnerships with top-flight universities by adding to the programs and courses the territory already offers in conjunction with overseas partners.

“We are making every effort to collaborate with other places to attract more overseas students to Hong Kong,” Mr. Wong said. “In this respect, our universities have adopted very aggressive programs in terms of student exchange and funding joint programs with overseas universities.”

Education Officials from Hong Kong formed a steering committee in 2006 to begin the process of promoting the city as a regional academic hub. The move was promoted as an opportunity for Hong Kong to attract talent, enhance competitiveness, while also providing local students the opportunity to broaden their horizons. That year, Hong Kong’s eight public universities created an internationalization committee to develop strategies aimed at increasing foreign enrollments. Together with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, university representatives have since been increasingly active at recruitment fairs in the region, as well as in North America and Europe.

At the time of the announcement, Hong Kong had witnessed strong growth in enrollments from beyond its borders. The ratio of admissions for non-local students in government-funded tertiary education had risen from just 2 percent in 1993 to 10 percent in 2005-06 (now 13 percent), although it should be noted that mainland Chinese students are counted in these numbers. In 2006, students from China accounted for 94 percent of non-local enrollments, with 4 percent coming from other Asian countries and 2 percent from elsewhere.

In 2007, Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, officially announced that the territory would be looking to attract a greater number of international students to its institutions of education. The announcement meant that Hong Kong would be looking to establish itself as a direct competitor to other Asian countries – such as Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea – that had previously announced their intentions to promote themselves as regional ‘education hubs’ for internationally mobile students.

The measures announced by Mr. Tsang included an increase in the cap on non-local undergraduate students to 20 percent from the existing 10 percent; new and increased scholarships for foreign students; more favorable employment regulations for foreign students; easier pathways to employment after graduation; and increased efforts to attract scholars from overseas.

To help with these goals, the government has established a $128.5 million scholarship fund, from which foreign students are eligible to receive double the financial awards available to local students. In addition, Mr. Wong told The Chronicle that the territory is looking to hire approximately 1,000 additional scholars in the coming years.

Hong Kong has a number of major advantages over other prospective destinations, the strongest of which was emphasized this month with the release of the second annual QS ranking of Asian universities. The education research firm ranked two of Hong Kong’s universities as the best on the continent, with a third as the fourth best.

Mr Wong also noted in his interview with The Chronicle that Hong Kong has a “competitive edge” because of its urban setting, its use of English to teach at the university level, and its mix of Asian and Western cultures. In addition, higher education in Hong Kong is considerably cheaper than in the United States, Britain and other potential Western competitor destinations.

While academics in Hong Kong have complained that there is a lack of a coordinated government program to promote the territory’s universities, that process does appear to be underway with visits such as the Hong Kong delegation’s recent tour of the United States this month, and also an increased presence at recruitment fairs across the region.

A more pressing concern, perhaps, is the lack of space that universities in Hong Kong have to house the increased number of international students. In response, not only are existing institutions looking for land to build new accommodations, but the government has also agreed to provide land for as many as five new higher-education campuses, and is reportedly accepting proposals from universities abroad. Considering the shortage of real estate in the tiny and crowded territory, this suggests a serious level of commitment to establishing Hong Kong as an international study destination.

Promoting Outward Mobility

The launch of Hong Kong’s new academic structure aligns it with systems familiar to those in the United States and China, and away from its British roots. The four years of study leading to the Hong Kong Certificate of Secondary Education Examination (HKCEE) at the end of Secondary Five and Hong Kong A-levels in Secondary Seven is being replaced by a new three-year senior school secondary curriculum, which is preceded by three years of junior secondary, and will be followed by new four-year undergraduate programs. The new degree programs, beginning in 2012, will replace current three-year degrees.

The changes are meant to develop each student as a “whole person” with a global outlook, while also offering a more broad-based education.

On his trip this month, Mr. Wong visited a number of American universities that are popular with students from Hong Kong, including City University of New York and Stanford University. Currently, there are approximately 8,000 students from Hong Kong enrolled at American institutions of higher education, and Mr. Wong says he wants to make sure Hong Kong’s new curricula will be compatible with their academic requirements.

Britain’s central admissions service (UCAS) has already undertaken a benchmarking study of the new Hong Kong secondary leaving certificate and, in January of this year, compared it as (essentially) equivalent to the UK’s A-level. This provides admissions advisers in the United Kingdom with solid evidence that students graduating from the Hong Kong school system post-2012 will have the skills required to enter directly into British undergraduate programs, should their grades be sufficiently high. The UCAS benchmarking is also significant as the organization is responsible for 40 examination bodies around the world, allowing many countries to draw comparisons to the new Hong Kong senior secondary curriculum.

Currently at WES, we are assessing the new secondary curriculum and degree structures, with a view to offering guidance on equivalencies in the near future. At that time, we will delve a little further into the substance of the new curriculums at both secondary school and at the undergraduate level and offer our assessment in this space.

As a quick primer, however, we offer these details:

Students who last year began the new secondary curriculum will take the HKDSE for the first time in 2012, which will also be the final year of Secondary Seven and A-levels, resulting in a logistically challenging double cohort of secondary graduates entering tertiary studies that fall.

The curriculum for the new HKDSE includes four core subjects (English, Chinese, mathematics, and enquiry-based liberal studies), two to three elective subjects, and ‘Other Learning Experiences’ covering aesthetic, physical and careers education, and community service.

There will be no restriction on the number, or quota, of students eligible to undertake study for the new diploma. This is in contrast to an A-level system that left close to 25,000 qualified students (or one-third of the age group) out of the system.

The standards-referenced HKDSE is graded from Levels One (the lowest) to Five, with a 5* and 5** for finer differentiation for university entry. The UCAS equivalency study found that for all subjects except mathematics, the following applied:

Hong Kong (HKDSE)
Grading Scale
UK Grading Scale
5* A-A*
5 A
4 C
3 E


The UCAS study did not give grade equivalents for A-level grades B and D, and it does not cover levels 1 and 2, although they would appear to be Fail equivalents. Mathematics was not included in the exercise because of its compulsory and extended components.

At the university level, the extra year of study will largely be used for additional liberal arts content, not unlike the U.S. undergraduate curriculum.

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Posted in Asia Pacific, Credential Evaluation Issues, Education Policy, Mobility Trends