I was met early by Winston, who is the agent St Mary's is working with to develop international partnerships in the Far East and together we travelled to the Expo hall in Wan Chai for a recruitment fair. The A-level results in Hong Kong came out last week and today was, in the main, an exercise in clearing for those students who hadn't managed to get the grades that would enable them to get into a home based institution.
The hall was packed with English and Australian Universities all keen to pick up students and it was fascinating to observe the process in action. Some institutions offered special deals to student who signed up today, others promised the earth without really asking anything about the student themselves. Nearly all had inserted the term 'International' into their nomenclature. I found some of the strategies extremely bullish.
The fair had organised for me to have two assistants, Kathy and Alice - both studying at undergraduate level in the UK, one at UAE in Norwich and one in Aberystwryth. Neither had known much about where they were headed when they left Hong Kong and both were finding life in the UK to be a bit dull. I asked them why they'd chosen to study in their respective Unis.
'I came to a fair like this last year,' said Kathy 'Aberystwyth looked beautiful. I didn't realise how long it would take me to get anywhere else in Europe. They made it sound like the centre of the universe.'
It's a tricky world. For UK institutions facing huge cuts the international market is a potential goldmine, but in the scrabble I worry that there isn't enough consideration given to the needs, personality or maturity of the students. I suspect some of my colleagues at the fair might judge such an attitude as paternalistic and that students and their families have every freedom to make an informed decision; but I disliked the ease with which potential obstacles such as poor communicative English, lack of geniune understanding about UK HE institutions or weak grades were swept away by the promise of an international student fee coming into the coffers.
I interviewed several candidates mostly for Business Studies or Media Arts courses. It's clear that St Mary's is attractive because of its proximity to London and it's pastoral approach. For parents, sending their children 9,000 miles away security is the main concern and I quickly realised that if we really do want to encourage students from Asia that we need to be certain that we offer a really user friendly induction programme and regular 'how are you doing' tutorials. It's this kind of support that gets reported back to schools, colleges and parents back here. I would even venture to say this is more important than the academic standing of the institution.
We wound up at 4pm, which gave me the early evening to explore the area. Wan Chai is one of the most rapidly developing areas on the Island, with great conference and concert facilities springing up - but it's also one of the oldest parts of the city and tucked away between the main thoroughfares are the traditional lanes and passageways where a more traditional way of living is fighting to survive.
I wandered past the blood stained fishmongers of Shone Nullah Lane onto Queen's Road which led me past the old colonial post office and the Hung Shing Temple into Star Street where my guide book suggested that I could eat at the only surviving Dai Pai Dong stall in the area. Dai Pai Dong literally means Big Plate Stall and has been part of Hong Kong life for many years. The old colonial government granted liberal licences, allowing huge freedom for the holders to create their own menus, but most specialise in one or two dishes. After the Japanese left at the end of World War II hundreds sprang up as the locals picked themselves up and looked for ways to resuscitate the economy. Now, as more permanent structures are developed, only 28 still exist in the whole of the SAR. The one advertised, specialising in coconut toast, had been run by the same family opening at 6am and closing at 10pm, six days a week, since the early 1950s. Sadly in between my book being published and my arrival it too had closed down.