“Before I came to Beijing, my impression of the Chinese mainland was a picture of Shenzhen 10 years ago: dirty and dangerous,” said Lee Yuan Ting, a Hong Kong student of philosophy at Peking University.
Lee arrived in Beijing for the first time last year. And after a year of studying at one of China’s best universities, her impression of Beijing and the mainland has changed.
“It was definitely less frightening and different from what I expected. Hong Kong media’s reporting on the mainland is somewhat biased. They won’t report if a mainland tourist helps a grandma cross the street, but they will report if the helper turns out to be a scammer,” Lee said.
Some 20 students were admitted to Peking University with Lee, but only several decided to attend.
“For most Hong Kong students, schools on the mainland are still a back-up choice,” Lee said. The number of Hong Kong students enrolled has increased slightly this year, Lee said, adding that she saw dozens of Hong Kong students come to Beijing in 2015.
Mainland universities started to recruit Hong Kong students in 2012. That year, 971 students were admitted to mainland universities, Takungpao reported. This year, that number increased to 1,444.
Staff at the Hong Kong and Macao offices of China’s Education Ministry told the paper that mainland schools plan to recruit more students from Hong Kong. Currently, mainland universities select students from 78 Hong Kong high schools, and the ministry is planning to increase that number to 84.
“We go to school, participate in school activities and stay in the same dorms with mainland students,” Lee said.
At Peking University, students from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan attended the same courses as their mainland counterparts, but there are some minor differences. For instance, students from outside the mainland can choose courses to substitute their required credits in Marxism or other ideology courses. They can also choose to skip the compulsory military training exercises.
Communication within the university is quite open. Lee said most dialogue is based on curiosity and learning.
“I have mainland students who come to me and ask about the latest news stories concerning Hong Kong. I will tell them what do I think about it and what people in Hong Kong think about it,” Lee said.
“At Peking University, we can talk about lots of things, but it is advised not to act upon them,” Lee said.
But most of Lee’s friends are from Hong Kong or Macao.
“We like to go out more. Most of the mainland students prefer staying on campus, and they spend more time studying,” Lee said.
Lee believes one of the major differences between Hong Kong universities and Peking University are how the two focus on different aspects of skills. Hong Kong universities stress school activities and participation to hone students’ practical skills like problem solving, communication and other business-prone skills.
“Some of my Hong Kong friends only have to earn 80 credits for their BA, but mine is more than 130 credits,” Lee said.
But for Lee the academic approach suits her better.
There are three common options for Hong Kong students who graduate on the mainland, Lee said.
“Some students are determined to go back to Hong Kong or at least to stay in the nearby city Shenzhen. Some seek opportunities within their universities to go abroad. And some consider doing business on the mainland,” Lee said.
Lee’s friend Lee Kwok Fai falls into the last category. He started a cultural company that develops platforms to increase cultural exchange between the mainland and Hong Kong.
Lee worked at the company as an intern. Last year she brought a group of Chinese students to Hong Kong. Along with conventional sightseeing, she brought students to Sheung Shui, where local residents made headlines for protesting against mainland traders.
“It’s a good way to increase mutual understanding and help people know what really happened behind the news stories,” Lee said.
Lee also believes her knowledge about Beijing and her connection to people here will make her a more competitive candidate in the future.
Takungpao reported that degrees from mainland universities are becoming more credible among Hong Kong employers. Some Hong Kong companies value a student’s knowledge and connection in the mainland, especially in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Mainland to Hong Kong
Hong Kong also gets a large share of its students from the mainland.
According to South China Morning Post, around 99 percent of students enrolled in Chinese University’s Master of Science in finance in 2013 were from the mainland. Of the students studying applied economics, 80 percent were from the mainland.
Local enrollment is also on the decline in the communications department at Baptist University. In 2013, there were 1,500 applications, mostly from the mainland, for about 150 places.
According to Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC), mainland students make up the vast majority of postgraduate students, numbering 4,586 in 2012-2013, up from 4,298 in 2011-2012, out of a total of fewer than 7,000.
However, applications to Hong Kong universities by Chinese mainland students have fallen this year, Wall Street Journal reported.
Baptist University of Hong Kong – one of eight publicly-funded universities in the city –said it received 2,319 applications for the 2015-2016 school year, down 40 percent from last year.
Hong Kong Polytechnic University–which has the largest student body among the public universities–said it had about 2,300 applicants from the mainland this year, compared to some 3,500 last year. And Lingnan University–known for its liberal-arts focus–said it received 556 applications from mainland students this year compared to 928 a year ago.
Although some Chinese media attributed the falling numbers to tensions between mainland and Hong Kong, students who have studied in Hong Kong universities had a positive view of higher education there.
Ma Yifan, who studied English Translation in City University of Hong Kong, said she thought her professor and books were very helpful.
“The communication in my course is good and we are quite open to each other’s views. I had one classmate who was aggressive about his views, but that was only on the political level. I don’t think he is biased against mainland students,” said Ma Mengxuan, who was a law student in the University of Hong Kong.