University and school heads are opposing the education minister's proposal to expand a scheme that gives school students rapid access to university courses.
Under the Early Admission Scheme (EAS), academically gifted students in their penultimate year of college (form 6) can apply to study at university if they score at least six As in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE), the Hong Kong equivalent to GCSEs. Last year, 416 students were admitted to universities through the scheme.
The expansion proposal is part of an overall strategy to change the British-based education system to an American model so universities can offer four-year degrees by 2013.
Education minister Arthur Li Kwok Cheung said that expanding the EAS was one way of speeding up the process, but many school heads are concerned about its effect.
"If we cut that back, a lot of people will lose out and few will gain. We are rushing too quickly to a US model," said Rosalind Chan Lo-sai, chair of the English Medium Schools Association.
Many educators feel other students, who still have to go through the conventional route to university by studying for the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE), will be demoralised by the process.
Hong Kong already has a shortage of university spaces. More than 18,000 students passed their HKALE examinations last year, but there were only 14,500 degree spaces available in Hong Kong's 11 universities. Expanding the EAS could make the competition for places even more intensive.
"If I know there won't be that many university places available, I don't really see the point of staying an extra year to study for the HKALE," said Pauline Wong, a form 6 student who plans to take the exam next year. "I'd be very upset if someone who has only passed the HKCEE gets a jumpstart on me, even though I've studied much longer."
Several form 7 students have complained that some very popular courses, such as medicine, have been filled by students applying through the EAS.
More disruption could be caused as schools cut their form 7 classes because more form 6 students enter university.
"Given the choice, I think most students who want to enter university would like to do it a year earlier if they could," one school head said. "The EAS gives them the chance to do that and means that we have to allocate more resources to form 6 classes."
University heads are calling for more financial resources to be available to make a four-year system possible. But university spending is to be reduced by 10 per cent next year due to government spending cuts.