There was a rumor recently circulating among South Korean students at the University of Hong Kong that some North Korean students were studying there as well. Hearing the rumor, I contacted the university and confirmed that it was true. Three North Koreans started there in the 2009-2010 academic year, two of them giving North Korea as their country of origin on their application forms and the third being a dependent of a North Korean official stationed in Hong Kong. It is the first time in the university's 99-year history that North Korean students have been admitted, a university spokesman said.
It was, in any case, simply a case of the university broadening its appeal. For decades it provided scholarships to local students under a program called "Leaders of Tomorrow," but as it grew into the top school in Asia, ranking first in Chosun Ilbo rankings last spring, it changed the program's name to "International Leaders of Tomorrow" to broaden the scope beyond the territory and meet its improved status
Prof. John Spinks, who oversees the scholarship program, said the university realized the need to educate excellent students who can serve as bridges between Hong Kong and their own countries while promoting the university's academic reputation. The university asked for recommendations from Asian governments. Vietnam recommended 150, but the university chose only three. And it was for this program that North Korea also recommended students. The university said it picked only the best of the best through a strict screening process. Scholarship students pay no tuition fees and are given a stipend for part of their living costs.
Ten percent of undergraduates, 50 percent of graduates and 50 percent of faculty at the University of Hong Kong are foreigners, making up a total of 10,000 from 80 different countries including North Korea, Paraguay and Zimbabwe. At the National University of Singapore, the student body is even more international. Twenty percent of undergraduates, 60 percent of graduates and 50 percent of faculty are from more than 100 countries, totaling around 13,000
The ethnic composition of the two universities is impressively diverse. Aside from ethnic Chinese, Southeast Asians and Arabs, as well as Africans, Americans and Europeans fill their campuses. That ethnic diversity means that classes must be taught and assignments submitted in English. In the Times global rankings in 2009, the UHK ranked 24th and NUS ranked 30th, ahead of Seoul National University (47th) and Peking University (52nd). That was in large part due to their level of globalization and use of English. In an interview with the Chosun Ilbo last year, both UHK president Lap Lap-Chee Tsui and NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan said that the secret to their success is to invite top academics from around the world. Now, they are also inviting the best students worldwide.
By Lee Hang-su, the Chosun Ilbo's correspondent in Hong Kong