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Ethnic minority students in Hong Kong face uphill battle for university admission

Students sit for the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams on April 26, 2021 in Hong Kong, China

Only about one in 10 ethnic minority students in Hong Kong who studied the city’s curriculum secured a coveted government-funded university spot over the past five years, underscoring the challenges this disadvantaged group faces due to language barriers, according to official figures.

The Education Bureau’s statistics show a stark divide: While around 25% of majority Chinese-speaking students who took the university entrance exams gained admission to public universities, the rate was nearly three times lower for non-Chinese speaking pupils during the same period.

The dismal figures have reignited calls to boost support for ethnic minorities, with educators and advocates blaming low Chinese proficiency as the primary obstacle impeding academic success.

“Their level of Chinese is low, but almost all aided and government primary schools were using Chinese to teach subjects other than English,” said Lai Chun-kit, vice-principal of a secondary school where half the students are from ethnic minorities.

The reasons for the proficiency gap take root early. Mohammad Rohail, a 24-year-old English teacher of Pakistani descent who attended the school, said many ethnic minority toddlers are rejected by mainstream preschools, missing a crucial window for Chinese exposure.

“It’s my firm belief that if you’re not exposed to Chinese from kindergarten, it becomes very difficult for you to adapt and learn Chinese when you’re older,” Rohail said.

Advocates argue the funding provided to schools to boost support for non-Chinese speakers should be tied to performance metrics rather than just enrollment numbers. Manoj Dhar from IBEL, an NGO assisting minority communities, said, “Their funding must be on a performance-based matrix and concrete deliverables.”

With around 15,000 government-funded university places allocated yearly, advocates say more must be done to level the playing field. Some universities, they note, give less weight to alternative Chinese assessments compared to the arduous public exams.

Systemic barriers extend beyond academics. Lai cited discrimination and low self-esteem as further obstacles, with some students feeling pigeonholed into low-skilled jobs.

“We have been teaching students they should aim higher,” Lai said, encapsulating the rallying cry echoing across Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities.