Growing anger over mainland students in HK

"They grab degrees, they grab jobs! The government allows them in - but did it ask us first?"

So says an advertisement in the Apple Daily newspaper two weeks ago, expressing the outrage of Hong Kongers who oppose the "mainlandisation" of the city's universities.

This initiative - a year after an infamous ad likened mainland Chinese in Hong Kong to locusts gobbling up its resources - comes amid a spurt in the number of mainland students in the city over the past decade.

The resentment comes despite the fact that mainland students are still vastly outnumbered.

There are 10,963 of them in Hong Kong's eight government-funded universities - about six times the number in 2001, when there were just 1,912.

By contrast, the number of Hong Kong students dipped for a few years before rising to 80,273 today, slightly higher than the 76,659 in 2001.

"I've heard local students say that it has become more and more difficult to apply for graduate school, hostel spaces and exchange programmes - and even to find a seat in the library," Steve, the campaign organiser, told The Straits Times. "Why? Because mainland students are swamping our universities."

Steve, who works in a university, revealed only his first name.

To date, the campaign which started in March has raised HK$52,553 (S$8,600) in donations while its Facebook page has received 2,706 likes. Steve said he hopes it will pressurise the government to roll back its policies on allowing mainland students to come to Hong Kong.

Before, they were admitted only as part of joint programmes with mainland universities. But in 2003, Hong Kong universities were allowed to independently enrol mainland students.

In 2008, the government further eased the requirements, permitting non-local students to stay on to find work in Hong Kong for up to one year after graduation.

Today, non-locals can comprise up to 20 per cent of the universities' total student population.

But there are no quotas for research post-graduate programmes, where 73 per cent of students are now from the mainland.

Such stark statistics are combustible stuff in a city where antimainland sentiment has swelled, in tandem with a growing assertiveness to maintain the local Hong Kong identity.

As student Stephen Ho wrote on the campaign's Facebook page: "Students in Hong Kong are so sad. We tried our best to study, but our places are stolen by those mainland students. All (is) in vain, all are dreams."

But interviews with experts found that the reality is far more complex. In absolute numbers, there are fewer applicants from Hong Kong as its population ages.

But the percentage of each cohort who make it to university has actually risen a little from 17 per cent in 2001 to 19 per cent now.

As for research post-graduate programmes, Hong Kong students have a better chance of getting in; their admission rate is 25 per cent versus 10 per cent for non-locals.

The fact is that the calibre of mainland applicants tends to be higher, said Professor Cheng Kai Ming, chair of education at the University of Hong Kong.

Dr Chung Kim Wah, director of the centre for social policy studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, added that although he believes the proportion of mainland students is still within a healthy range, he can understand Hong Kongers' concerns.

He said: "Walking around university or just sitting in the canteen, I feel surrounded by people speaking Mandarin."

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