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Hong Kong: Applying to University - Must read

Modern education in Hong Kong

Constantly scoring high on the global charts, the modern education system in Hong Kong is born from long-standing cultural attitudes and values of hard work. But what is it exactly that makes education in Hong Kong so outstanding?

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There is no place quite like Hong Kong. Influenced by rule of two very different cultures, the city is not only a global business powerhouse or the world’s most sought out travel destination, but a world leader in realms of education.

A major overhaul from 2000 to 2006 saw key changes in Hong Kong teaching curriculum, language instruction and means of assessment, moving away from rote models and a narrow focus on exams. New university curriculum similarly intends to better engage with international trends, and will extend undergraduate study programmes from three years to four. How did the city’s education standards reach this world-class stage from its humble village learning beginnings? Let’s take a look at Hong Kong’s educational history to find out.

Beneath Chinese rule, British rule and then Chinese rule again, education in Hong Kong holds influence from both cultures.  Before being captured by Britain in 1841, schooling was mainly done via village schools, with one teacher for all grade levels. In 1843, a boy’s only education system was set up for British and Hong Kong boys, before western teaching methods were officially adopted in 1861. The first ‘western style’ medical school was opened in 1887. By the 1920s and 1930s, Hong Kong’s system was modelled on that of the UK, and largely akin to what it still is today.

Since being handed back to China in 1997, the educational system has undergone many changes. Departing from UK systems, models introduced at the start of the 2009/10 academic year more closely resemble those of mainland China and the USA. These changes made it easier for most children to complete 12 years of education thanks to the removal of fees and a series of public exams in secondary school. The new secondary system also includes three additional years of senior secondary learning which lead to the completion of the HKSDE (Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education). This qualification enables entry into a range of tertiary and further studies.

Many direct-subsidy ‘local’ schools also offer internationally recognized secondary qualifications such as the IB and the UK GCSE/A-levels. This addresses concerns of parents that the HKDSE will not be as easily recognized for tertiary entrance abroad.

But there’s only so much weight you can give to a system itself without considering the attitudes present in implementing it. Chinese culture attaches key social importance to education and modes of learning. The cultural value of hard work has also been paramount in Hong Kong’s continued educational success.

Historically, Hong Kong is a refugee society. Without an in-built class system, the way to progress socially was through education: a task requiring diligence and hard work. Pupils are taught to work under pressure and are always made aware of why they are being taught what they are. These attitudes have remained at the core of the city’s psyche, reflected in the booming success of the shadow education industry as parents try to best gear their children towards success. Approximately 70% of secondary students receive private tuition in addition to schoolwork.

There are eight universities in Hong Kong, and several other specialist tertiary institutions. All offer a range of studies across undergraduate and postgraduate levels, as well as associate degrees and Higher Diplomas. The overwhelming trend for local students is to complete post-graduate study abroad. Most grad students at local universities hail from Mainland China.

In 2012, five Hong Kong universities were named in the world’s top 100 for mathematics, statistics, modern languages and accounting and finance. Three of the city’s eight universities, University of Hong Kong, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong are in the top 50 of the 2012/2013 QS World University Rankings, with most courses taught in English.

The last decade has seen continued efforts to raise Hong Kong standards of education, with teachers recruited from the top 30% of university graduates. In 2011 Hong Kong ranked fourth in reading, second in maths and third in science, scoring highly amongst alongside other Chinese city Shanghai.


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