Imagine, for a moment, the stereotypical Chinese exchange student at UW-Madison. Hardworking, quiet, hangs out with the mass of other Chinese exchange students in the library on weekends, and destroys every grading curve in your class. Now, whether or not this stereotype is fair or true, imagine you are transplanted to a school entirely populated with those types of students. This is HKUST.
I don’t want to promote the stereotype that Asians are curve busters and only care about their grades. That is not true. However, there is a particular academic atmosphere on campus that I think exchange students should be aware of. I noticed this right away, even on my first few days in Hong Kong before attending class, but I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it until I had gained a little more experience. Now, 11 months in my year-long exchange I think I’ve got a better picture of the underlying causes.
Let’s begin with some statistics. According to data collected this year, the School of Business and Management and the School of Engineering had the largest number of enrolled students, followed by the School ofScience, with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences trailing far behind. Total student population is roughly 13,000, less than half of UW’s size. This plays out in many ways: there are only two major academic buildings on campus (one for the business school and one for everyone else), fewer elective courses available, and each course normally only has one section available. This is significant because it makes scheduling courses more challenging, and often bumps up class size (I’ve had courses with 20-100+ students). With few exceptions, courses are comprised of 90 minute lectures and a 90 minute tutorial section. However, in my experience, given that professors often lack graduate student teaching assistants and that the entire class attends the same tutorial section, the tutorial is just another lecture.
Non-local students make up roughly 1/3 of the student population. While the numbers don’t differentiate between exchange and full-time non-local students, in reality the difference between the two groups is very clear, and a cause of tension on campus. Just as there is a general level of resentment against the perceived academic threat of too-smart Chinese students back at UW-Madison, many people (both local and exchange) blame the mainland students for the school’s attitude of extreme academic excellence. In part, I think this is a continuation of general local resentment of mainlanders coming to Hong Kong and snapping up resources; whether that be spots at top universities, jobs, housing, or even milk powder.
The competition between local and mainland students, combined with the policy of grading courses on a curve and social pressure for academic excellence has resulted in a subculture of “Stress and Tension”. In many ways, local and mainland students’ only responsibility is to do well in school. Most students rely on their parents for financial support, so it is relatively rare for students to have a part-time job during the semester. HKUST students also appear to devote themselves primarily to one sports team or student organization, and while these groups do provide some social activities, it often seems like their major purpose to to create hierarchies within the school. With little outside of the classroom to distract them, students struggle to keep up a healthy work-life balance.
So, that said, after my first semester I was feeling very nervous about my grades. Unlike at UW-Madison, there is very little feedback throughout the semester, so it can be difficult to determine how you are doing before going into the final exam. Similarly, the entire grading system is pretty opaque. Professors have a sort of outline of the relative weights of each assignments and test in the syllabus, but how the grades are calculated is a bit of a mystery. Additionally, the level of detail you are expected to recall for the exams is significantly different from what I experienced at Madison. Certainly the general concepts and problem-solving skills were tested on my two biology finals, but there were also a number of rote memorization questions. I vividly remember one problem that required us to fill in the name of an enzyme we had honestly discussed for two minutes one lecture five weeks back.
But, my grades were similar, if not better, than what I generally received at UW-Madison. Papers and group projects are generally graded much more generously than at UW. I think this is partially a reflection that English is everyone else’s second language, but is a nice bonus for exchange students. Ultimately, despite all of the hype and fear on campus, academically HKUST is not all that different from UW-Madison, which makes it a perfect location for science and engineering students to plan an exchange!