The results of the university entrance exam for over 42,000 candidates were released on Wednesday, with eight students nabbing perfect scores in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams.

HKDSE 2022 top scorer Calvin Tse from Queen Elizabeth School. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Among the eight top scorers this year, one of them shared their plan of studying abroad, whilst the others said they would stay and pursue a degree in either medicine or finance.

Calvin Tse, a “super top scorer” – defined as attaining full marks in eight subjects – from Queen Elizabeth School, told the press he plans to remain in Hong Kong despite signs of an exodus.

“Even though Hong Kong has seen a lot of unfortunate events recently, I still wish to stay… because Hong Kong is my home. I love the people here, I love the culture here, and I still like this place very much.”

HKDSE 2022 top scorer Calvin Tse from Queen Elizabeth School. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

As Hong Kong’s newest crop of high school graduates marked a milestone, HKFP looked back at where the city’s top scorers of the past decade ended up – and spoke with one who decided to choose a less conventional path.

A different track

Since 2012, a total of 90 people have attained the title of a HKDSE “top scorer” or “super top scorer,” meaning they were awarded full marks in seven or eight subjects respectively. Students typically take on seven subjects.

The majority of top scorers decided to stay in Hong Kong, analysis by HKFP showed, with 62 per cent of them enrolling in the medicine programme and 17 per cent in the law programmes at either the University of Hong Kong (HKU) or the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

However, more have decided to leave Hong Kong since 2018 to study at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge in the UK.

Anna Tsui, one of the top scorers in 2014, is currently a social science research assistant. She was the only one among the 90 who enrolled in the CUHK’s Government and Public Administration programme – a course with entrance requirements far lower than medicine and law.

I am aware that given the current political climate, studying in Hong Kong might not be the same experience.

Anna tsui, 2014 DSE top scorer

Explaining why she picked the programme, Tsui, now 25, told HKFP she hoped to discuss topics like the possibility of universal suffrage in Hong Kong with course mates. Liberal Studies, a compulsory high school class that has since been axed, also contributed to her interest in politics.

But after finishing her first year, she transferred to the University of Oxford, where she enrolled in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics course. Tsui said she did not initially apply to Oxford, or any universities abroad, as she did not think her “grades would be good enough.”

“I had been studying in Hong Kong for a long time. It would be good to see what it’s like in other countries,” she said.

Anna Tsui, a top DSE scorer in 2014 who returned to Hong Kong after graduating from the University of Oxford. Photos: Supplied.

While most of her peers went on to work at investment firms, Tsui took a different track. Returning to Hong Kong in 2018 and taking on a job as a research assistant at CUHK, Tsui’s work involves looking into rights issues like strikes staged by local food delivery workers and the treatment of detainees at the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre.

“My path has been greatly influenced by what I learned at CUHK, particularly in terms of caring about underrepresented groups and social equality… however, I am aware that given the current political climate, studying in Hong Kong might not be the same experience,” Tsui said.

Photo: CUHK.

Tsui said she came back to Hong Kong without giving the decision much thought. “I was simply missing my home, and I have already connected with some local grassroots groups,” she said.

When asked whether she would recommend this year’s DSE candidates to stay or study aboard, Tsui thought for a while and replied, “it’s really difficult to decide now.”

An exodus of elites

According to figures from the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (JUPAS) and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), the number of students who applied for a university spot in the local admissions system fell to a record low of 38,955, whilst the number of candidates who took the DSE fell to 42,328.

Ricardo Mak, the director of public examination at HKEAA, said on Tuesday that there could be many reasons behind the drastic drop in DSE candidates, including the declining birth rate and the student exodus. “We didn’t undertake thorough research on this so we cannot say for sure,” he added.

More perfect scorers have enrolled in universities overseas since 2018, with five going to the University of Cambridge and two to the University of Oxford. Nearly all of them chose a degree in arts, science or social science.

“I assume most people think it’s safer to study degrees with professional qualifications at local universities, and the ‘unsecured’ non-professional degrees, like social science, at prestigious universities overseas,” Tsui said.

Shrinking freedoms

Much has changed at Hong Kong’s universities since Tsui completed her first year of her undergraduate studies at CUHK.

Since 2019, Hong Kong’s universities have been tightening room for students to participate in politics. At least five universities cut ties with their top student bodies, and two removed their on-campus Tiananmen crackdown commemorations.

Tsui was a member of the CUHK Student Press, a media outlet that ceased most of its operations after the CUHK student union disbanded last year. The outlet covered left-wing causes and supported labour rights. Her involvement with the group, Tsui said, has influenced her to this day.

CUHK student union cabinet announcing their resignation in 2021. Photo: Video screenshot

“The room has definitely shrunk – look at the barricades and gates at the CUHK entrances now,” she said, adding that she believed it would be much harder now for students to participate in student organisations like she did.

To stay or not to stay

I believe the future of Hong Kong will only be worse, a lot of social issues can only be discussed from an economic standpoint to prevent ‘trouble.’

Anna Tsui, 2014 DSE top scorer

Tsui told HKFP that, while she valued her studies in Oxford, she felt drawn to return.

“The time I spent in the UK definitely broadened my horizons,” the 25-year-old said. “However, I believe it is easier for me to connect and form long-lasting relationships with people who share my language and cultural background.”

Hong Kong people leaving the city. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

But from the crackdown on civil society groups to mass arrests under the national security law, the Hong Kong that Tsui calls home today is not the same city she left seven years ago. As a social science research assistant, Tsui feels the chill in her line of work. Social activism, she said, has been forced to be more muted nowadays.

File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“I believe the future of Hong Kong will only be worse,” Tsui told HKFP. She added, however, that she wants to stay in the city to continue serving grassroots organisations.

“They will be in the hands of the establishment if we leave,” she said.

Meanwhile, Calvin Tse, the top scorer who wants to study medicine at CUHK, also told the press he feels obligated to stay and work for Hong Kong people.

HKDSE 2022 top scorer Calvin Tse from Queen Elizabeth School. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

When asked by reporters on Wednesday if he felt the space for freedom of expression had shrunk at local universities, he briefly hesitated.

“I believe we can still express ourselves, but more carefully, without touching the red lines,” Tse said. “There’s still room.”

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Lea Mok

Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.