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Higher Education Equity and Access :

The Hong Kong Transformation

by David Post


In 1989, over one million Hong Kong people took to the streets to support the students who were suppressed in the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing. Hong Kongers became worried about the coming 1997 Handover to China of the colony.


In October 1989, David Wilson, the British governor, anticipated further brain drain as professionals emigrated from the colony prior to the 1997 hand-over. In order to compensate for this emigration, and to restore confidence in the future, Wilson accelerated the expansion of Hong Kong’s university system. Nearly all of the capital and recurrent costs of university education were to be paid by the government.


[I remember] the thrill of going to graduation ceremonies in all Hong Kong universities where, as governor, I was ex officio chancellor or the equivalent at all universities, giving degrees to these very, very sort of bright, shining-faced young people, carefully, carefully dressed, looking so cheerful and proud of themselves, and then walking out through a great, big hall. I remember particularly trying to do some of this. And where on each side were their parents or their friends, and the sense of pride in the faces of those parents, and the fact that you could see that many of them were very clearly from housing estates, they were from middle to lower social levels of society, and the thrill of seeing both those students, and the thrill of seeing on the faces of their parents the sense of achievement in watching their own children moving up beyond the level that they had ever been able to attain, and thinking, “That, that’s the essence of Hong Kong.” It is this ability to move upwards. - Lord David Wilson, 2007


In the years leading up to the 1997 handover, Hong Kong’s eight degree-granting universities benefited from real increases in government subsidy, and maintained student fees that were a small fraction of the cost. The last British governor, Chris Patten, became an advocate for democratic governance, and encouraged great autonomy of the government-sponsored universities. Enrollments grew to about 18% of each age cohort, then leveled off in 1995. The government indirectly owned and operated all BA-granting university programs until 2006, when the first private university was allowed to grant degrees.


Eleven years after 1989, Hong Kong had become a Special Administrative Region of China. Its first Chief Executive, Mr. Tung Chee Hwa, proposed further growth of tertiary education. He told the SAR’s Legislative Council that he envisioned a dramatic expansion and diversification, such that by the end of the decade 60 percent of young people in the SAR would continue to study beyond the secondary level (more than double the current participation rate). However, the government would no longer be the sole provider or funder of tertiary education.


I carried out this research in 2002, when I was at Division of Social Sciences, University of Science and Technology, and in 2007, when I was at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The study included interviews with many leading government and non-government policy makers and advocates for higher education, as well as archival research.

It also included micro-analysis of HK Census, 1971 - 2006, and comparison of the factors affecting postsecondary access. How did these change over time?

I first will discuss three unresolved policy dilemmas for Hong Kong higher education planners and advocates.

Then I will show the relevance of investigation into university access, based on census data analysis.


Three Policy Dilemmas,

Unresolved by Leaders and Public, and Contested by Opposition:

Dilemma #1. Should Hong Kong continue to expand postsecondary participation from the supply-side by building, owning and operating postsecondary institutions?

Alternatively, should Hong Kong subsidize student demand in the same way it does for most secondary school students (only a minority of whom attend government-owned schools, although nearly all are educated using government funding)? What can Hong Kong afford financially? In recent years, the government’s University Grants Committee allocated to the eight universities recurrent funding of about US$ 21,000 / student.


Dilemma #2. What are the political consequences of a higher education system in which private interests compete and even share power with central government planners?

In most education systems, there is an implicit trade-off between the capacity of the government to formulate coherent policy and the political ability to implement it. Cultivating “stakeholders” in social programs may weaken central control over decision-making. But, ultimately, this also creates greater commitment on the part of diverse political actors for educational institutions.


Dilemma #3: What is the rationale for supporting higher education and its expansion by the government?

Historically, in regions emerging from colonial rule or which change political systems and national allegiance, higher education has assumed a symbolic role in nation building and in the formation of national identity. Hong Kong is post-colonial, but part of China. Past educational investments have been made because they were felt essential to the fulfillment of manpower planning requirements of the economy. Today’s debate has potentially opened a new space in the discourse, and in this space some government opponents (the Civic Party, the PTU) began positioning themselves under the banner of human development (as opposed to human capital formation).


Dilemma #3: From justifications based on human capital investment ….

CHIEF EXECUTIVE TUNG CHEE HWA: “In developed countries and some major cities in Asia, up to 60% of senior secondary school graduates pursue tertiary education. For Hong Kong, however, the rate is just about half that. Not only are we lagging far behind, but failing to meet the needs of a knowledge-based economy. It is imperative we catch up. Our objective is that within 10 years, 60% of senior secondary school leavers will receive tertiary education.”


Dilemma #3: to positions based on human civic and holistic development ….

President of the Teacher’s Union and opposition Legislative Councilor CHEUNG MAN-KWONG: “ ….the emphasis of [Tung Che Hwa’s] policy, whether it be on education or environmental protection, is laid more on its value as an economic tool than on its intrinsic humanistic values. In the field of education, “cultivating talents” means providing sufficient human resources to improve Hong Kong's competitiveness and to increase its wealth. .. To cultivate a whole person and to build a green environment, we must rely on every individual. To do this, we need a democratic political system where we can choose our own government through universal suffrage. Only such a government, as opposed to one relying on the support of the businesses, can truly represent us and help us decide our own fate.


Opposition Legislator Councilor, MARGARET NG: The university

“…. is the nurturing ground for young minds and aims to open for them a window on to the world beyond, and to give them an opportunity to develop their intellectual abilities to the fullest. In a world which aspires to equality, the ‘highest good’ should be accessible to as many as possible, and not kept for the few decreed most deserving.”


Summary of policy problems facing higher education in Hong Kong:

Dilemma #1. Should Hong Kong continue to expand postsecondary by building, owning and operating postsecondary institutions, or should it subsidize student demand?

Dilemma #2. What would be the political consequences of a higher education system in which private interests compete and even share power with central government planners?

Dilemma #3: What is the rationale for supporting higher education and its expansion by the government? Human capital investment or civic development?


Decisions about higher education, and the resolution of the policy dilemmas discussed above, need to be informed by facts about the operation of the current system.

How well is the current system working in terms of creating opportunities for Hong Kong people? What has been the historical trend under this heavily subsidized system?

Who has benefited most from the subsidies and the higher education expansion since 1989?

What has been the impact on post-secondary opportunity of creating a two-tiered system including lower-quality and non-subsidized “associate degree” programs without articulation to a traditional university program and without the guarantee of transferring credits (there is no “credit” system in Hong Kong).


Education Attained by Hong Kong Girls

Relative to Attainment by Boys at Ages 19-20, by Census Year


Educational Equity, 1971 – 2001:

Ratios of Attainment Rates Depending on Fathers’ Occupational Class


Children’s Postsecondary Attainment in Sub-degree, B.A. or Overseas

by Quarters of Total Parental Income and Census Year


Educational Attainment in 2001 of Residents Born in Hong Kong

and of Immigrants from Mainland China


Summary of Census Analysis

Question: Who has benefited from the existing secondary and university system?

Question: Which groups tended to benefit more over the past thirty years?

The major conclusions of the census investigation are:

1. Over the 1981 – 2006 period, the expansion of university education was accompanied by an equalization in opportunities to attend in 2006, as compared with 1981.

2. This equalization occurred for income only during the 1981-1991 period. Since 1991, there has been a modest (but statistically significant) reversal in the earlier trend.

3. In 2001 and 2006, we know which children attend a university outside of Hong Kong, and from which income groups. It is primarily children in the top quarter of parents’ income children.

4. Children immigrating from China are at an increasing disadvantage in terms of university attendance, even after controlling for family resources (mother’s education, parent’s income, and ability to use English). However, this disadvantage for children born in China is only for those who came to Hong Kong after 1991.


Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen became the acting Chief Executive in March 2005, and in 2007, an 800-member election committee (composed mostly of functional representatives of interest groups), selected over the candidate of the Citizen’s Party, Alan Leong Kah-kit


In the debates leading up to the election, Alan Leong’s Civic Party raised the profile of education policy. The party platform promised that, if elected, Alan Leong would extend free and compulsory education from 9 to 11 years. He also promised to upgrade postsecondary education, and to stop further reductions in the budgets allocated to universities. He emphasized that the government should allow schools greater autonomy from the government.


After his election, and in his formal Policy Address, Donald Tsang gave education attention, but for different reasons than those mentioned by the Civic Party or the opposition “Pan-Democrats.” Tsang promised to “continue to raise the quality of education and upgrade our human capital, encourage more outstanding non-local students to study in Hong Kong and work here after graduation, and attract more talents to Hong Kong with a view to optimising our demographic structure.”

Will a rationale for education based on human rights or educational opportunity, and the development of potential emerge in Hong Kong? Or will human capital and manpower planning approaches remain dominant?