We’ve once again entered the yearly ritual where stories of students attaining top marks in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education get shared on social media, and become fodder for discussion as students aspire to become the next “DSE scholar” and earn a ticket to medical school.
As well, there are stories of students attempting to crack the exam at their third attempt, and, once again, much criticism is aimed at the DSE exams.
The DSE, dubbed the “single examination that determines your destiny”, recalls the Chinese imperial exams of old – high-stakes and brutal. Not surprisingly, many have compared it unfavourably to education systems elsewhere.
Recently, the American system received much fanfare after former Canto-pop singer and one-time rumoured education secretary candidate Agnes Chan Miling (who sent her three sons to Stanford) made headlines for calling Hong Kong’s education system too rigid.
But is the American education system that much better?
What’s worth examining are the more subjective aspects of the university admissions process, such as admissions essays and extracurricular activities. At elite universities in particular, a “holistic” approach is taken, meaning that grades are not the only barometer for admission. Potential for being the next Yo-Yo Ma or J. K. Rowling counts, too.
The problem with this is that most people aren’t going to be the next Yo-Yo Ma or J. K. Rowling.
Further, not all parents can spend thousands to boost their child’s résumé with projects such as starting a non-profit organisation to help destitute children in India, or hire former graduates of elite universities to help write a compelling college essay.
A highly subjective admissions process opens a can of worms, and can result in a pay-to-play scenario that disproportionately benefits those who are wealthy. By contrast, the DSE is unapologetically tough and unapologetically fair.
There are, however, some US education traits that would benefit Hong Kong. Akin to how the SAT, America’s standardised test for college admissions, is administered multiple times a year, so students should be able to take the DSE exam more than once a year. Taking internal school grades into consideration would also solve the “placing all your eggs in one basket” problem and help relieve student exam stress.
Ultimately, a more flexible system is needed. But should stuents be evaluated only through empirical means? Do we also value traits such as compassion and persistence? In the end , it’s up to society to determine the purpose of higher education.
William Pang is an engineering student at McGill University