A group of non-Chinese-speaking students from Hong Kong visit a robot laboratory at South China University of Technology in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, in Dec 2018. (KATHY ZHANG / CHINA DAILY)
Students from ethnic groups in Hong Kong are discovering that the path to higher education may lead them to universities on the Chinese mainland.
The aim is to let students and parents learn more about mainland universities and address parental worries and inherent prejudices. Their primary concerns are safety issues and teaching quality on the mainland
Yuen Kwok-ming, Principal, Caritas Tuen Mun Marden Foundation Secondary School
This is a small and developing trend that is likely to grow as these multilingual students find their services in demand in countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Hong Kong resident Hassan Shahul Hameed Nuaim Abul, 21, who was born in India, dropped out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to continue his education in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province. He wants to be a doctor, but only the best students can pursue a career in medicine in Hong Kong. He was not one of them.
Abul, who moved to Hong Kong with his parents when he was 3, made the decision nearly two years ago to go to Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, a city at the heart of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
The sophomore has never regretted his life-changing decision. He took up an offer from SMU and enrolled in its six-year bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery program.
"It was impossible for me to apply for a bachelor's program in medicine in Hong Kong. That's only for the very top students," Abul said.
In the city, only the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have faculties of medicine. Competition for enrollment is so fierce that only the top secondary school graduates can gain admission.
Data from Hong Kong's Joint University Programs Admissions System show that 269 out of 46,346 applicants were offered places in medicine at the two universities last year. The 269 included the six top scorers in the city's 2018 Diploma of Secondary Education examination.
Facing those odds, Abul thought that studying on the mainland was a good option for higher education.
After comparing several medical universities in India, Malaysia and Guangzhou, he chose to stay close to home, where there are fewer language barriers and the chance of becoming homesick is not so high.
He has enjoyed meeting people in Guangzhou, who are surprised that he speaks Cantonese. "Sometimes, I order food in the canteen in Cantonese," he said. "The language is not a challenge for me."
Abul owes his ability to adapt to university life in Guangzhou to 18 years of living in Hong Kong, which has a similar culture and is close to the mainland city geographically.
Hassan Shahul Hameed Nuaim Abul (front), a sophomore from Hong Kong studying at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, introduces exhibits to non-Chinese-speaking students from Hong Kong at the university's Science Museum of Human Anatomy. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
Three other non-Chinese students from Hong Kong have entered SMU in the past two years. All are pursuing bachelor's degrees. Previously, only one Pakistani student from Hong Kong had graduated from the university.
South China University of Technology, which is about 7 kilometers from SMU, enrolled its first two non-Chinese students from Hong Kong in 2017. Another was admitted for the current academic year.
In addition to universities in the Greater Bay Area, prestigious institutions in Beijing and Shanghai are also in demand among non-Chinese Hong Kong students intent on furthering their education on the mainland.
Jonathan Alduvi Rivera Padilla, 24, moved from Hong Kong to the Chinese capital in September 2016 as a freshman at Beijing Foreign Studies University's International Business School.
After leaving his home country, El Salvador in Central America, Rivera studied in Hong Kong for about six years.
A strong interest in learning Chinese, and curiosity about the capital, drew him to Beijing, which he first visited in 2016.
"Hong Kong is good, but it's small," Rivera said.
His new life in Beijing was not easy at first. He could not speak Mandarin, but language classes every semester got him over this hurdle. "I appreciate my Chinese teachers' patience in the past two years in helping me out of this difficulty," Rivera said.
"I have had fun exploring Beijing, learning how diverse cultures and dialects from different provinces mix in the city," he said. "This is what I would never have learned if I'd just stayed in Hong Kong."
Non-Chinese students from Hong Kong are admitted by mainland universities as foreign nationals, although they may have been born in the city or arrived in it at an early age.
This undated photo shows Abul Hassan Shahul Hameed Nuaim, a sophomore at Southern Medical University. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
Official statistics on non-Chinese students from Hong Kong studying on the mainland are not available. But Yuen Kwok-ming, principal of Caritas Tuen Mun Marden Foundation Secondary School, which is in the city's New Territories area, has seen a small but growing number of his students leaving to pursue higher education on the mainland.
The school has about 500 students, 70 percent of whom cannot speak Cantonese. Since 2015, when the school sent its first non-Chinese graduate to the mainland for further studies, it has helped about 10 more non-Chinese young people to enter mainland universities. Seven of them went to Guangzhou.
Yuen said students prefer universities in the Greater Bay Area because of its geographical proximity to Hong Kong and cultural similarities.
Scholarships provided by both the central and Hong Kong governments add to the appeal of mainland universities.
"To a great extent, numerous scholarship programs help to relieve the financial pressure on students from grassroots families," Yuen said.
Since June 2016, eligible non-Chinese students from Hong Kong have been able to apply for the Mainland University Study Subsidy Scheme run by the Hong Kong government. Students approved for the latest round of subsidies will receive financial support of HK$5,600 to HK$16,800 (US$714 to US$2,141).
Eligible students can also apply for various scholarships provided by the central government, local governments and universities.
Yuen is among the first group of educators in Hong Kong to recognize that mainland universities can help to broaden the path of non-Chinese students to higher education.
He feels that cooperation with mainland universities has taken off only in the past two years, since the Caritas Tuen Mun Marden Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding for cooperation with four mainland universities, three of them in Guangzhou.
In accordance with the MoU, the Tuen Mun school organizes annual exchange tours with mainland universities for students from Forms 1 to 5. They get the chance to communicate with their cross-border peers and run experiments in the universities' laboratories. University staff members give briefings in Hong Kong for students who do not take part in the tours, and answer questions from them and their parents.
"The aim is to let students and parents learn more about mainland universities and address parental worries and inherent prejudices. Their primary concerns are safety issues and teaching quality on the mainland." Yuen said.
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The increasing interaction between Hong Kong secondary schools and mainland universities has won support from the special administrative region's government.
Late last month, the Youth Development Commission, chaired by Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, Hong Kong's Chief Secretary for Administration, led its first exchange program for non-Chinese students to visit three universities in Guangzhou. The commission is charged with enhancing youth policy coordination. The program to Guangzhou was also sponsored by Hong Kong's Education Bureau.
Rizwan Ullah, the only non-Chinese member of the Youth Development Commission, led the tour. He was accompanied by about 60 non-Chinese Hong Kong students from three secondary schools.
Ullah, a Hong Kong-born Pakistani, works as an English teacher at Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo) in Kowloon. He said he hoped the trip would broaden the horizons of participants and allow them to view fresh opportunities at first hand. The students learn about different universities' admission policies, environments, curricula and scholarship programs.
"We hope the tour will allow them to realize that they have more options after graduation," Ullah said.
The exchanges have earned positive responses from mainland universities, a number of which have begun to put more effort into promotional activities and are becoming more active in connecting with Hong Kong secondary schools.
Chen Jun, dean of the School of International Education at SMU, said the university's closer cooperation with Hong Kong secondary schools has achieved "a win-win result".
This undated photo shows Chen Jun, dean of the School of International Education at Southern Medical University. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)
Students who face intense competition to enter Hong Kong universities are able to look at more options for higher education programs, she said.
"Every time I went to Hong Kong to promote our university, I saw many teenagers who were highly interested in studying medicine and surgery," Chen said, "We want to help them to realize their dreams."
Universities can embrace more diverse cultures and gain international insights by having more students from different backgrounds, she added.
Hu Guiping, deputy dean of the School of International Education at South China University of Technology, said the school has begun attaching greater importance to admissions from Hong Kong.
Since 2017, it has appointed several people to work on this, and Hu has led the team to seven Hong Kong secondary schools to promote the university.
With better connectivity linking Hong Kong and other cities in the Greater Bay Area, Hu said the flow of students and young talent in the area will accelerate. He referred to the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which opened in September and has significantly shortened journey times.
Most of Yuen's non-Chinese students traveling across the border are from countries and regions taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative such as Pakistan, India and Nepal, among others. Yuen said his school's cooperation with mainland universities can nurture more talent that can contribute to the development of the BRI.
He said non-Chinese Hong Kong students studying on the mainland will be competitive in the job market. "They can speak at least three languages－their mother tongue, English and Cantonese. They also have an international insight, and know the cultures and the way of thinking in their own countries and in China."
The development of the BRI also gives young non-Chinese in Hong Kong more opportunities to advance economically, as their "mobility opportunity" in the city is limited, Yuen said.
According to a report in 2016 on poverty among ethnic groups in Hong Kong, most new entrants to the workforce from these groups were hired for grassroots positions, offering lower incomes. The report said these workers originated mainly from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Rivera, the Beijing Foreign Studies University student, said he wants to shape his career on the mainland, where he has plenty of opportunities. The college junior believes he can find the ideal job based on his ability to speak Spanish, English and a little Chinese.
Hu said he is confident the figure will rise, although the number of non-Chinese students from Hong Kong at South China University of Technology is limited.
Yuen added that students already studying outside of Hong Kong have established "a model", and this will inspire more to explore mainland higher education institutions.
Gong Wan, director of the China Education Exchange (Hong Kong) Center, said more non-Chinese Hong Kong students are pursuing higher education on the mainland, but predicts that in the short term there will not be a dramatic rise in the number.
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Hong Kong secondary schools, parents and mainland universities still have numerous reservations about this emerging trend, Gong said, adding that the latter need to assess whether non-Chinese students from Hong Kong have the academic standing and aptitude for studying on the mainland. Parents and some secondary schools in Hong Kong remain doubtful whether mainland universities are the best route for their children.
Gong said it is not easy to enroll at mainland universities, especially those widely known for excellence in academic and scientific research, and he suggested that students assess their own abilities and academic records, and ensure they are qualified before moving to the mainland.