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China and Hong Kong Battle Over Top Students

New America Media, News Report, Wenyi Li Posted: Jun 27, 2008

HONG KONG -- This June, a record 10.5 million young Chinese participated in the national College Entrance Examination (CEE), up half a million from the year before. The CEE is the largest test of its kind in the world.

Whether these students succeed or fail on the exam determines their competitiveness for future jobs and changes the course of their lives in this demanding society. This year, there are twice as many candidates as there were university spots. In turn, the top universities in China and Hong Kong are competing for zhuangyuana Chinese term for exam champions from each city and province, numbering around 70 each year nationally.

Of the 614,000 students in Guangdong Province, 21-year old Yang Yang was the 2007 CEE Champion. After turning down an offer from Tsinghua University, a top university in China, he now studies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). A year after that decision, Yang Yang still remembers how hard it was to make the choice. I have been dreaming of Tsinghua University since I was a little boy, he says. My father took me to Beijing to tour the campus. I slept uneasily, even laid awake for several nights before making the final decision.

When asked what convinced him to study in Hong Kong, Yang Yang says it was the Hong Kong universities better academic record and their abundance of learning resources. In most Chinese universities, students are always in a long line; the library, bookstore, or even bathroom, Yang Yang says. Teachers never get the chance to know a single student well, but in Hong Kong, there are small groups, like 30 students a class. Professors are always there for you, and the teaching is more individually tailored.

Yang Yang also appreciated the Hong Kong universities English learning environment, We use English on the campus, from textbooks, exams, to presentations. It was hard for me to imagine when I was in Mainland China, he added.

Yang Yang is just one of the zhuangyuans who turned down a top universities in China and embraced universities in Hong Kong. Since gaining approval to recruit students from mainland China eight years ago, universities in Hong Kong have enrolled more than a tenth of all zhunagyuans in 2001 and 2002.

According to a report from Chinese University Association Evaluation Group this year, three Hong Kong universities appeared on the top eight zhuangyuans favorite list. By June 9th 2008, out of the fifteen zhuangyuans from Guangdong Province, seven have registered for universities in Hong Kong, according to South City Newspaper. The phenomenon of growing numbers of zhuangyuans and top students attending universities in Hong Kong caught the attention from various media. China Daily, Xin Ming Evening Paper, and Beijing Youth Paper all published articles questioning the top Chinese universities reputations.

Chinese Financial Times, for instance, published a piece titled Days can be counted when Beijing University and Tsinghua University are still first class in China. Faced with the loss of outstanding candidates, these top universities have started to fight for zhuangyuans. One of strategies they are using is to provide personal service. According to Xin Ming Evening Newspaper, Yuan Si, vice president of Tsinghua University, together with the universitys admissions committee, went to the top high schools in Guangdong Province in May to showcase the history and academic achievements of the university.

They provided students with their cell phone numbers and 24-hour consultants. Many universities have started offering bigger scholarships. Xinhua News cited a statement from Tsinghua Universitys vice president that the university would double its scholarship money this yearfrom 3,000 USD to 6,000 USD. Tuition is around 1,000 USD a year.

In response, universities in Hong Kong are also showcasing their achievements. The University of Hong Kong (HKU), for example, claims on its Web site that its students have easier access to prestigious universities overseas for further study and its employment prospects for graduates have always been good. The near zero unemployment rate among its graduates has been one of its claims to fame.

Universities in Hong Kong are also famous for their three highs: high admission criteria, high tuition fees and high scholarships. The required CEE score for an interview at one Hong Kong university exceeded that of the admissions score line of Beijing University last year.

The tuition fees can be another hurdle. Liao Li Jia, for instance, had to give up a Hong Kong schools offer due to a lack of scholarships. The tuition fee is going crazy, she said. From $7,000 a year in 2001, to $10,000 in 2006, and this year, it rose to $16,000.

When compared with that of most Chinese Universities (around $1,000 a year), the fees are not what an average Chinese family can afford. However, Hong Kong universities intellectual environment and global vision are still attractive to me, Liao Li Jia added.

One of HKUs visions is to produce well-rounded graduates with lifelong abilities to provide leadership within the societies they live. It proved it by turning down 11 zhuangyuans in the past few years.

Mary Ma, who works in HKU Chinese students admission office said that they did not give some zhuangyuan the offer because of their poor interview performance. They may do well in written exams, but they are not well rounded, articulate and lack group spirits. We dont think they are competitive candidates for future career, which is our schools goal.

Not coincidentally, Christopher J. Ryan, Chief Executive Officer of ING Investment Management, said that when his company recruits new employees, instead of looking for top students, they are more interested in those students with better communication skills and leadership abilities.

I enjoy these two years study in Hong Kong and I never regret my choice, said Yang Yang, one year to go before his graduation, with a smile on his face.

Wenyi Li is a writer with New America Media.

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