As you may know, I grew up in Canada, and have studied in Canada, Hong Kong, and the US. I’ve actually also taken a distance-education degree at a PRC university through a PRC satellite campus in Zhuhai, China. Having studied in 4 jurisdictions, I thought to share my personal experiences for those who might be interested, including potential parents who might consider sending their children overseas in the future.
Growing up in Canada, studying in a Canadian university was closest to home. After secondary school, I attended the University of British Columbia (UBC) in my hometown of Vancouver, BC. The “top ranking” universities in Canada are the University of Toronto, McGill University, and UBC. In Canada, most universities are public. The 3 are “top ranking” as they receive the most public funding and publish the most papers.
Canadian public university a cross-section of society
Most of my classmates came from all walks of life. Public university is generally a cross-section of Canadian society. I had an opportunity to meet other Canadians (and international students) from all walks of life from Canada and elsewhere. UBC, known as “University of a Billion Chinese,” is also popular amongst Chinese (and TVB actresses), from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan and Chinese immigrants.
Culture in a public Canadian university
My impression of Canadian university was how laid-back and stress-free it was. There was so much freedom in thinking – I just felt little pressure. I was encouraged to be different, and challenge others’ perspectives. Once I had to write a paper on “post-modernism.” After briefly discussing what I thought it was, I annexed blank sheets of paper to my relatively short explanation. I got an A- for handing in empty sheets.
Hong Kong universities
After living in Canada for 15 years, I was greeted by culture shock in Hong Kong when I continued my school life at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). When people say the “top 3” local universities, they mean HKU, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the University of Science and Technology. After graduating from UBC, I was admitted in the inaugural Juris Doctor (JD) programme at HKU.
Hong Kong education is a meritocracy
I really didn’t know what to expect because neither my parents went to universities in Hong Kong. Now, I know that local children must go to a “famous” pre-school to get into a “famous” kindergarten, primary, then secondary school, and so on. Funding for public education is limited in Hong Kong, and parents are left to scramble for limited resources. If they could afford to do so, they send their children overseas.
A privileged few in Hong Kong university
Yes, I was greeted by culture shock. Students in HKU’s law faculty, considered a privileged bunch, were extremely competitive. They had to be, or else would not have been there. I use the word “privileged” because only the very “best” local students could be admitted to Hong Kong’s most competitive law school through “JUPAS.” I was forced to study extremely hard, to survive. Also, in HKU PCLL, 1/3 of the class were overseas law grads.
At HKU JD, I had the option spend my 3rd year studying a Master of Laws (LLM) at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), where President Trump is an alumnus. In the US, the “top” universities are dominated by “Ivy League” and a number of famous public universities. As I understand, the cultures of public and private universities are very different. But for international students, both are equally expensive.
Segregated cultures of American private universities
I cannot speak for other American universities but at Penn, a private school, campus culture is very “collegiate.” Greek life was prominent. Fraternities, sororities, school clubs dominated campus life. Each residential college had its own clubs. I lived in Sansom Place with mostly older grad students, but life was still fun. However, there is inevitably an “elitist” culture which might contrast with public schools.
The path to a homogeneous culture
Private universities in the US are very selective. They have a lot of discretion in their admissions policy that tend to admit a certain type of students from rather “privileged” backgrounds. Priority is given to children and grandchildren of alumni. As much as private schools are saying they are striving for diversity, this is in itself an issue, because they are known to be very homogeneous in their admission decisions.
I can’t really speak for PRC universities because my experiences are extremely limited. Out of personal interests, I took a distance-education Bachelor of Laws (LLB) programme at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law (中国政法大学) (CUPL). I attended classes through a satellite classroom in Zhuhai. The course is designed for Hong Kong and Macau students so I never had the opportunity to meet local Chinese students.
Cultural emphasis on the collective
My first impression was that in the classroom I was in, students are free to share their thoughts, as did the professors. The profs grew up in mainland China, a totally different place where we grew up, but most had studied masters or doctorates overseas or have taught overseas as visiting scholars. A cultural difference was emphasis on the collective good over the individual. This is related to a different social upbringing.
Practical concerns for studying in PRC
A practical concern for studying in the PRC is that Hong Kong employers and government departments might not hold PRC degrees in the same regard as Western universities, such as UK or US schools. Thus, except for areas where PRC knowledge might be useful, PRC degrees are probably more helpful as secondary, not primary, qualifications. But as Hong Kong becomes more integrated into the mainland, perception is changing.
Perhaps not many people have studied in 4 different jurisdictions. For me, the almost chaotic experience has been a blessing. It’s open my eyes to different cultures of various societies and given me an opportunity to participate in other cultures. What’s most important isn’t the book knowledge that I’ve learned, but exposure to everyday life in other societies and cultures. This blessing has given me a sense of appreciation for things different.