Roshan Daswani reminds me of the cool kids back in high school. Tall, athletic, with an air of ease, his voice is low and his words draw out slow. He apologises for his messy appearance, saying that he stayed up late studying.
Daswani is in his second year at HKU Space, a community college affiliated with the University of Hong Kong. He is pursuing studies in accounting and finance as he prepares to apply to transfer into an official university for the second time.
Like the typical student, his days are irregular, and planned around his curriculum. On a relatively relaxed day, he would wake up around 7, and fill up on something simple at home – milk or a protein shake, occasionally a sandwich. Class would begin around 830 and last till the afternoon.
Daswani then goes to the gym, hangs out with his friends or works, as he does twice a week, as a chess teacher at Kellect School and Pui Ching Middle School. He often has dinner with his family around 6pm, and then studies from 8-11pm – a must – before going to sleep.
“I always make sure the fridge is stocked before I start studying,” he says with a laugh, “I snack a lot.”
Born and bred in Hong Kong, the 19-year-old went to local schools, including the upper-middle tier HKMA David Li Kwok Po College, and applied to universities here using results from the Diploma of Secondary Education examinations (DSE). In 2012, before graduation, he entered the Joint University Programmes Admissions System (JUPAS) designed for local students to apply for places in one of nine member institutions with undergraduate programmes.
“You have almost 80,000 students taking the exam, and you have around 15,000 university places. And out of those 80,000 students, maybe 25-30,000 students actually get decent results but still only half get in,” he says, “I actually didn’t do that bad on my exams, I got a decent result, I was the average – but I couldn’t get in. ”
In 2015, 40 percent, or almost 30,000 out of the 74,131 students who sat for the DSE achieved the minimum scores required to enroll in local undergraduate degrees. Out of these 30,000 students, slightly over 20,000 were offered places, and about 17,000 students will go on to enter the universities, according to official figures released.
University entrance to Hong Kong universities is divided up into local (Jupas) and non-local (Non-Jupas) systems. According to the SCMP, while there are limited places within the Jupas scheme, there is no cap on the non-Jupas intake, which includes students who sat for the British A-level examinations.
This has led to a debate about how the education system deepens Hong Kong’s income gap, as students from wealthier families, who are more likely to attend the expensive international schools, can also enter local universities more easily, creating a cycle where mostly the rich and elite can afford tertiary education and thus, social mobility.
With his older sister already two years into her degree at HKU, the younger Daswani said he felt the family pressure to make it there too.
“I was very disappointed, it still kills – I still feel the disappointment. But I guess it drives me to work a lot harder so I don’t ever have to feel that way again.”
While he thinks he would have gotten into overseas universities easily, he didn’t apply due to the higher tuition costs.
“My international school friends all went overseas or easily made it into local universities through the Non-Jupas system,” he remarks, “If I was in international school, I would have probably also eased into HKU.”
“I tried to switch to an international school some time in year 10, but it was too late because you need to get used to the International Baccalaureate system.” He says, “That’s one of my regrets, not changing sooner.”
Since his childhood, Daswani has been passionate about sports, with football being his pet favourite. He still plays it three to four times a week, with the Kowloon Cricket Club in division 2 in the established amateur Yau Yee League and as a coach for Asia Pacific Soccer Schools.
“I was always good at sports, but no one really valued that in school. In Hong Kong, they focus so much on academics, and barely on anything else,” he sighed. “I realised that pretty late, that’s why I’m in community college.”
Daswani says that his parents were often disappointed at his grades in secondary school, but neither of them took to physical discipline, and both were supportive of his hobbies and development outside of school.
At the end of his first year in HKU Space, with a GPA of 3.8/4, Daswani tried to transfer into HKU and was notified that he would have to start again from year one. Although he managed to get through the grade requirement, he choked up with nervousness on the interview.
This time round, he’s spreading his bets and applying also to other universities to maximise his chances as he says usually only 20, out of 300 students across all community colleges, will be able to convert to the HKU faculty of business and economics.
“If I don’t get what I want here, it’s like I’m running away from the problem. I have to get into university here, then I can do whatever I want,” he says.