Can Hong Kong’s top universities attract overseas students, scholars?


“What attracted me was the list of courses provided on the programme’s website,” she said. “It was in English, so I assumed the classes would be available in English. But most of the courses I found interesting were taught in Cantonese.”

When she tried signing up for the “Creative and New Media” practicum, for example, she was assigned to English news writing instead, as the former lacked courses taught in English.

Indonesian student Lunaretta has landed a spot in Chinese University’s journalism programme. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

She also felt uneasy at the start of a student leaders’ training session attended by local and non-local undergraduates.

“There was a question asking local students their stereotype [impressions] of international students, and some of them said there was the issue of hygiene,” she recalled.

She was taken aback by the lack of cultural sensitivity.

If she could choose again, Lunaretta said, she would “definitely be more inclined to Western countries”, provided she could afford it.

Bangladeshi Shafayet Yaseen, 22, a third-year engineering physics major at Polytechnic University, said a language and cultural barrier kept Hongkongers apart from non-local students.

He said he felt some Hong Kong students were not confident about speaking in English, and that made them hesitant to mix with international peers.

“I have not made a lot of local friends on campus so far – only two to three, but they are the best,” he said.

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He added he had no regrets about choosing Hong Kong. A full scholarship covered his fees, and he appreciated having distinguished professors, the world-class learning environment, opportunities for international research and the city’s proximity to nature.

Yaseen, who has been recommended by his professors to join international research laboratories in Germany to work on novel projects, said: “There are plenty of opportunities in Hong Kong and lots of valuable contacts to make, so you need to keep both eyes open from day one to make sure you don’t miss out on them.”

Asked if he would recommend Hong Kong to other Bangladeshi students, he replied: “Absolutely.”

Diverse mix helps universities move up rankings

Lunaretta and Yaseen are among more than 14,000 international students in Hong Kong universities, and the government wants more to come as it develops the city into an international centre for postsecondary education.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu announced in October that the number of non-local students in undergraduate, sub-degree and postgraduate publicly funded programmes in the 2024-25 academic year would be doubled from the current 20 per cent.

Education chiefs later said the increase would be gradual, adding about 5 per cent more each year.

In the last academic year, 14,147 non-local undergraduate students studied at the eight public universities funded by the University Grants Committee, including 3,907 in their first year.

With the change, another 3,000 non-local students would be admitted each year, with a total of 12,000 enrolled annually when the new target is reached. The public universities will also add 13,500 new hostel places by 2027.

Chief Executive John Lee has said the number of non-local undergraduates in the 2024-25 academic year will be doubled from 20 per cent for publicly funded undergraduate programmes. Photo: Sun Yeung

To attract more non-local students, authorities will inject HK$1 billion (US$128 million) into the Government Scholarship Fund, increasing the number of recipients from countries in China’s Belt and Road Initiative from 100 to 150 each year.

There are many more scholarships available for non-local students, including those from the universities.

The government has also earmarked funds for an international campaign to promote Hong Kong as a study destination.

Although more non-locals have been coming to study in Hong Kong, critics have suggested the city’s universities have been experiencing mainly a “mainlandisation” – meaning mainland Chinese students have dominated the intake.

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The University Grants Committee data confirmed that their proportion among non-locals has been rising, from almost 60 per cent in the 2018-19 academic year to 67.6 per cent in the last academic year.

At the University of Hong Kong (HKU), one of the institutions in the city with the largest population of international undergraduates, mainlanders made up 56 per cent of non-locals in the 2021-22 school year, and that was the only group which grew.

Students from other Asian countries made up just over a third of the non-local undergraduates, with those from Europe accounting for about 5 per cent, North America 3 per cent, and Australia and New Zealand 2 per cent.

Global rankings of universities take into account the make-up of students and faculty members, and having more non-locals helps institutions rise up the list.

The best known QS and Times Higher Education rankings have five Hong Kong public universities among the global Top 100 – HKU, CUHK, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), Polytechnic University and City University (CityU). HKU and CUHK made the Top 50.

More than 14,000 international students are enrolled in Hong Kong universities. Photo: Elson LI

Ben Sowter, senior vice-president at British firm Quacquarelli Symonds, which puts out the QS rankings, said diversity was one of 11 criteria in its latest Asia University Rankings 2024, adding it had affected Hong Kong institutions.

“A downward trend for international faculty and students is apparent, signalling an imperative for university leaders and policymakers to focus on bolstering Hong Kong’s stature as a premier study destination to sustain its competitive edge on the world stage,” he said in a statement accompanying the list, which was released in November.

In the earlier “Best Student Cities” list released in July, Hong Kong’s ranking slid to 21st from 12th, the lowest since the table appeared in 2012.

For “student mix”, reflecting the number of international students and inclusiveness, Hong Kong dropped from 25th in 2016 to 72nd. For “students’ voice”, where students rated the city’s friendliness, sustainability and diversity, it slipped from 22nd last year to 35th.

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Bangladeshi Trichi Chakma, 21, a third-year undergraduate majoring in business and administration at CUHK, and president of its International Student Association, said hosting welcome activities for freshmen this year helped her to see the diversity on campus and make friends.

She said the generous government scholarship drew her to the city, covering her fees and housing. CUHK’s strong ranking and career opportunities at multinational corporations also helped her decide.

Trichi said some of her classmates who were paying their way struggled with the city’s high rents, and this was something she would make her friends in Bangladesh aware of.

“Since international students are not permitted to do off-campus jobs during term time, they need financial support unless they get enough funding from the university to cover their living expenses,” she said.

Hong Kong does not allow undergraduates to work off-campus, unlike other countries which allow international students to take up part-time jobs, subject to maximum working hours.

Record number of scholars left, but many also came to city

Although local public universities have emphasised diversity in hiring faculty, this has not been an area without controversy.

In October, historian Rowena He Xiaoqing, a Canadian national, was sacked by CUHK after Hong Kong ­immigration authorities denied her a visa.

The former associate professor began teaching at the university in 2019, and her research included Beijing’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, about which she had earlier published a book.

She said when she had asked authorities about the delay in her visa renewal, she received a list of questions about the sources of funding for her past projects at universities in the US and whether she had ties to foreign governments or non-profit organisations.

Hong Kong public universities log new high in number of students who quit early

A record 361 academics left the city’s universities in 2021-22, up by about 30 per cent from the 277 in the previous school year.

Former law professor and opposition activist Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who is now in jail, and ex-lecturer and lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun were among the outspoken scholars who left when their contracts were not renewed or they were made redundant.

A spokeswoman for the UGC noted that the public universities had recruited 482 academic staff in the 2021-22 school year, more than the number who left.

As with students, the eight universities saw such an influx of mainlanders among the total 5,120 faculty employed that they now outnumber locals.

There are 1,815 mainlanders, or 35 per cent of the total, making them the biggest single group. There were 1,224 five years ago.

A quarter of the mainlanders work in science faculties, more than a fifth are in engineering and technology departments and a fifth are in business and management.

The number of locals fell from 1,924 to 1,670 and their proportion shrank from two-fifths to a third over the same period.

Academics from the rest of the world made up 32 per cent, slightly lower than 34 per cent in the 2018-19 school year.

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Nevertheless, CityU, HKUST and HKU fared better than top universities in Singapore, Britain and the US in terms of international faculty.

According to the latest QS World University Rankings, the three Hong Kong universities ranked between 17th and 28th for the number of foreign faculty as a proportion of the total, whereas the others were 33rd to 64th.

In recent years, critics have suggested that Beijing’s imposition of the national security law in 2020 has resulted in shrinking academic freedom and scholars shying away from sensitive political topics.

But David Parker, 66, who became chair professor of chemistry at Baptist University (HKBU) in September last year after a distinguished career at Britain’s Durham University, said scholars recruited to work in Hong Kong had not been affected by the law.

“The factors determining whether a scholar accepts an invitation to work in Hong Kong are largely independent of the impact of the 2020 security legislation,” he said.

“The reasons for acceptance include the presence of talented, friendly and supportive colleagues within the universities, the intrinsic attractiveness of the Hong Kong region and landscape, and the proximity to the mainland that offers many opportunities for collaborative research work.”

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He said some senior and distinguished scientific researchers, including a Nobel Prize winner, had arrived. Nobel laureate Fraser Stoddart joined HKU last month as chair professor of chemistry.

But he had complaints about the visa requirements for people of different nationalities to obtain flexible entry to the mainland and the cost of living in Hong Kong, especially for housing.

“Accommodation costs remain ludicrously high and are simply unaffordable for those people with young families who have an expectation and right to a certain quality of life,” he said.

Emeritus Professor John Burns, who specialises in public administration at HKU, said Hong Kong was still an attractive place for international scholars and students.

“The mainland is an innovation powerhouse; its history and culture are fascinating. Hong Kong provides easy access to China, while still being relatively separate,” he added.

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But he conceded that some people overseas who followed Hong Kong developments closely were put off by recent changes which had reduced the city’s relative autonomy, narrowed the scope for civil society and increased government scrutiny of universities.

“These concerns may be felt more by academics working in certain disciplines, for example, social sciences, humanities, law and education, and less in traditional STEM subjects,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Burns agreed that the national security law would have made some foreign scholars have second thoughts about moving to Hong Kong.

“But in the end, all academics are citizens too, and value the relative freedom which Hong Kong offers to live their lives as they wish and pursue their academic interests relatively unhindered,” he said.

“Hong Kong’s universities also offer substantial support for overseas scholars, and therefore are able to attract them.”

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