Raging debate - Should Hong Kong charge higher fees for more expensive university courses like medicine?

The average cost of nurturing an undergraduate student each year at public universities in Hong Kong has soared by 42 per cent over a decade, with each medical student costing as much as HK$578,000 (US$74,000) per year.

The unit cost for medical and dental students is more than double that for those studying non-laboratory disciplines such as business, language, education and the social sciences.

But several representatives in the education sector who spoke to the Post dismissed the idea of charging different tuition fees for undergraduates based on their disciplines, saying it could impede upwards social mobility by discouraging students with financial difficulties from enrolling in more expensive courses.

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According to figures by the University Grants Committee (UGC), the average undergraduate unit cost per year in the last academic year stood at HK$288,000, rising from HK$203,000 in 2012-13, marking a 42 per cent increase over a decade.

Among 17 disciplines at public universities categorised by the UGC, physical sciences recorded the biggest jump in cost, at 56 per cent over the decade, followed by art and design at 48 per cent.

The city government earlier announced that university tuition fees would rise by HK$2,400 for the 2025-26 academic year and by another HK$2,500 annually for the two years after that.

The shake-up follows a near three-decade freeze and will lead to an overall increase of 17.6 per cent in 2027-28 compared with the current level.

All local undergraduates at publicly funded universities currently pay HK$42,100 each year regardless of their subjects, but the average cost per student varies according to their choice of degree.

Fees paid by students are expected to cover 18 per cent of the expense of their courses borne by the government, but that share – also known as the “cost recovery rate” – has fallen to as low as about 13 per cent this year.

The two most expensive disciplines are medicine and dentistry, with each student costing more than HK$500,000 in 2022-23.

Graduates at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The city government earlier announced that university tuition fees would rise by HK$2,400 for the 2025-26 academic year. Photo: Elson LI

The cost of other disciplines that involve laboratory work and advanced equipment, such as physical and biological sciences, engineering, technology and health, was more than HK$300,000 per student in the last academic year.

Other subjects including law, art and design, computer and information technology, architecture, social sciences, and business cost more than HK$230,000 per student, while language-based degrees were the least, at HK$226,000.

Some Western countries such as Australia and Canada charge local students different fees according to their choice of degree, depending on the costs of the subjects and labour demand.

Hong Kong’s government, like Australia’s, has channelled more resources into commerce, communications, law and visual arts while decreasing those for environmental science, health, teaching, agriculture and nursing, in a bid to encourage students to take up disciplines where there were labour shortages.

Lee Yi-ying, a secondary school principal and the chairwoman of the Subsidised Secondary School Council, said charging different tuition fees for each programme could prevent some students with good academic results from pursuing subjects that offered more career prospects.

“Students from working-class backgrounds, even with good results, would not dare to sign up for programmes such as medicine if they cost more, even if those degrees might ultimately improve their family income,” the principal said.

Programmes such as medicine and dentistry also required more expensive textbooks, which would place a heavier financial burden on those students, she added.

Wong Ching-yung, the head of Scientia Secondary School, echoed Lee, saying different fee levels would affect the upwards mobility of students and also eventually have an impact on wider society by discouraging talent from pursuing certain professions.

“Students might have to limit their choices when choosing which programmes to apply for due to financial considerations. Charging higher fees for certain degrees, in other words, would place one more hurdle in students’ paths,” he said.

Lingnan University associate vice-president Lau Chi-pang held a different opinion, saying the tuition fees paid by medical students covered an “extremely low proportion” of the total cost of the programme.

He suggested that the government consider imposing different fee bands on various subjects as part of meeting the “international standards” for tertiary education.

“As the majority of students studying medicine receives full or partial scholarships according to their academic results, the lower band of students could be helped by the financial aid,” he said.

“In Hong Kong, there is no way students with good academic results should be barred from studying the subjects they want. That was the case in the 1970s, but not today,” he said.

Law Chun-hoi, a third-year student majoring in science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said he did not think it would be a problem charging students in medicine or dentistry a higher tuition fee.

“Most of them are top students, they are more likely to get subsidies or scholarships more easily,” he said.

Chan Ching-yeung, a second-year nursing major at HKU, said that even with financial aid or scholarships, there would still be social inequality as it was the elite students from wealthy families who tended to receive those scholarships.

Li Sze Chai, a second-year mechanical engineering student at the university, said charging higher tuition fees in medicine or dentistry would not be a concern for most of those undergraduates, as they generally came from wealthy families.

“Their families invest more in their education, and help them to get better grades,” Li said, adding that “social stratification is already everywhere”.

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