Hong Kong universities ‘could suffer’ as population shrinks

But academics note silver lining, with larger number of qualified local high schoolers gaining access to city’s high-quality institutions

八月 24, 2022
Farewell at Hong Kong International Airport
Source: Getty

Amid a 10-year low in university applications and the worst demographic decline in decades, Hong Kong’s universities could become more vulnerable to fluctuations in student figures, academics said.

The city, which boasts a concentration of some of Asia’s top universities, faces record-high admission rates this year, with less competition for places in its undergraduate programmes.

In 2022, applicant numbers largely based on figures for the city’s eight publicly funded institutions dipped to 39,523 – down from about 64,000 since 2012, Hong Kong’s university admissions body reported.

The slump in applications came as the city suffered a 1.6 per cent decline in its population this year, according to recently released annual census figures. More than 113,000 residents emigrated in that time, many of them to the UK. Meanwhile, Hong Kong saw a gross loss of roughly 25,000 people as deaths far outpaced births. It’s the largest drop over a 12-month period since records began in 1961, the Hong Kong Free Press noted.

The demographic trends mean that university admissions will be “more determined by the students – the so-called market force”, said Ada Lai, a teaching fellow at the University of Southampton, formerly at the Education University of Hong Kong.

Although a 30 to 40 per cent admission rate is “quite common” in other countries, she said that fewer applicants to Hong Kong institutions in coming years may mean that popular majors, such as law or teacher training, may lose students.

“If they do not choose a certain university or a certain programme, those universities or programmes will suffer,” she said.

Carsten Holz, a professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, warned that demographic decline could begin to affect applicant quality if top students chose overseas universities over local ones. He worried that recent changes to Hong Kong’s laws affecting freedom of speech might deter some school-leavers from staying.

“I suspect that anyone of the younger generation that has witnessed the 2019 protests and the ‘government’s’ response will have a high likelihood of wanting to study abroad,” he said.

But even if more young Hongkongers leave, the city’s most prestigious universities may still be insulated from any decline in student quality. 

Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement and outreach at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that his institution was “not concerned” about incoming student quality, with the 2022-23 intake “one of the highest quality on record”.

He added that CUHK was keen to boost its intake within the centrally mandated 20 per cent limit on non-local students and is “actively recruiting” from outside Hong Kong, including from mainland China, South-east Asia and India.

Still, the decrease in local applicants may have a silver lining for students.

In previous years, roughly half of Hong Kong’s high-schoolers satisfied universities’ minimum admission requirements but were unable to enter owing to a cap on fully funded first-year undergraduate places, said Dr Lai.

Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, also noted that the large number of “well-prepared students at secondary level” has kept down Hong Kong’s acceptance rate, causing a “somewhat elitist” system.

“In general, there has always been a problem with the carrying capacity of universities in Hong Kong,” agreed Anatoly Oleksiyenko, director of the Comparative Education Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong.




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