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The view from "Clever City": Looking at Australian education through promotional videotapes

Ian Hart
University of Hong Kong
The Australian Education Centre in Hong Kong has a library of over 150 videotapes on Australian schools, colleges and universities for reference by prospective students. Some have been produced by in house educational technology units, the majority by professional consultants. This paper evaluates the effectiveness of these programs in the light of what we know about today's Hong Kong students and questions whether producers are pitching their programs at the right audience. The author goes on to suggest how educational technology units could more effectively assist overseas students in making a choice and preparing themselves for success in the Australian university system.

Running out of luck

Australia in the 1960s and early 70s - Donald Home's "Lucky Country" - was a place where it was easy to be complacent and to feel superior. We had defeated the Japanese in war and were the white master race of Asia envied for our British civilisation, our easy wealth, our high level of education. Asian students who came to our schools and universities under the Colombo Plan were our contribution to shouldering the white man's burden.

Then, in the mid 1970s things began to change for the Lucky Country: first, there was an economic boom in Asia which cut the already wobbly supports from under our protected industries and rapidly raised living standards in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea; then the bottom fell out of the export agriculture and minerals markets. Australia was left exposed as a country living in an illusion.

When, at the end of the 80s, Bob Hawke exhorted us to give up the dreams of the Lucky Country and become a "Clever Country", he probably had the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore in mind as models. These two economic "Mini-Dragons" have no mineral resources, no agriculture, no natural resources other than their people, yet their per capita foreign reserves are the highest in the world and their economies continue to grow in the face of a world recession.

Learning to be clever

Australia's future is in the Asian region and we can no longer afford the luxury of cultural isolation from the economic dragons to the north. We've made a start. We've set out to learn the secrets of the Clever Cities of Asia through Business Migration Programs and by establishing off shore trading companies and joint ventures in Mainland China. We're becoming involved in regional politics though ASEAN and UN initiatives in Cambodia and Vietnam. The Hong Kong Australian Chamber of Commerce is the one of the largest and most active in the territory. We're beginning to look smart ... if not exactly clever.

The change of emphasis in our dealings with Asia is nowhere more marked than in education. Australian schools, TAFE colleges, ELICOS centres, business colleges and universities are profiting from the increased wealth and heightened aspirations of Asian families by actively recruiting fee paying overseas students who want a Western style English education.

The recruitment of overseas students has become an economic necessity at a time of cutbacks in financial resources. Some schools and universities have gone so far as hiring consultants and advertising agencies to promote their merits. Austrade has recognised the direct and indirect benefits to Australia of exporting education and organises regular Education Fairs in the major capitals of Asia where state education departments, independent schools and universities mount elaborate and impressive displays. And, in spite of adverse news stories on unemployment and the economy and scandals over English Language colleges, Australia attracts 4-5000 Hong Kong students per year - the same as Britain, Canada and the USA.

Educational technology units have important roles to play in this process of educational entrepreneurialism:

This paper surveys the a selection of current information videos being used for student recruitment in Hong Kong and attempts to assess their effectiveness in the light of what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Hong Kong students. It is by no means a guide to producing video material for Thailand, Korea, Taiwan or any other Asian country. One unfortunate blind spot which many Australians retain from the days of the Lucky Country is that there is one homogeneous Asian culture.

The "typical Hong Kong student"

15 years ago the "typical" Hong Kong university student was more likely to have been male than female, from a well off middle class family where at least one parent had been to university, was in the top 5% academically and was fluent in English.

Over the past 10-15 years there has been a dramatic shift in the socio-economic profile of the Hong Kong undergraduate population. University study is no longer exclusively the province of the privileged elite and a first degree has become a prerequisite for any professional position.

Since 1981 there has been a 300+% increase in government funded undergraduate places. There are now seven degree granting institutions in the territory. The current plan is for student numbers to increase by another 30% over the next three years.

Table 1: Comparison of Tertiary Places 1981/1991
[Source: University and Polytechnic Grants Commission]

Number of degree places (including undergraduate and postgraduate) provided by the UPGC funded institutions:
(full time equivalent)
(full time equivalent)

Number of degree students graduated from UPGC funded institutions:
(head count)
(head count)

The looming 1997 hand over to China combined with the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown has also had an effect on the socio-economic mix of the student population. By some counts, as many as 60% of tertiary educated, middle class families have either emigrated to Britain, Canada, the USA and Australia or sent their children to be educated overseas as "insurance".

The effect of the overall increase in student numbers, combined with the wholesale emigration of an entire "class" has been considerable. Fifteen years ago at the University of Hong Kong, where English is the official language of instruction, 75% of students would have come from homes where at least one parent had been to university and English was the language spoken in the home. Today, 75% of students come from homes where neither parent has been to university, where Cantonese is the language of communication and where 50% of students do not have their own room or their own desk for study. [Source: University of Hong Kong Counselling Centre]

A profile of today's typical Hong Kong undergraduate population would show:

What kind of students apply to study overseas?

Fifteen years ago if a student were not in the top 5% of school leavers the only opportunity to obtain a degree was to study overseas. Non-scholarship Hong Kong students studying in Australia were invariably from wealthy family backgrounds.

In more recent times, the signing of the Joint Declaration (on the hand over of Hong Kong to China in 1997) has seen a rapid increase in applications for emigration from the Hong Kong middle class. Many parents who do not qualify under Business Immigration schemes believe that having children with overseas qualifications is important to their chances of successful emigration. An increasing number of these applicants are by no means privileged or wealthy (at least in Hong Kong terms) and are likely to have borrowed money to study overseas.

The profile of a "typical" Hong Kong applicant for an Australian university place would be very similar to the Hong Kong undergraduates described above.

Why choose Australia?

Applications for admission to Australian schools and universities are handled by the Australian Education Centre (28th Floor, Harbour Centre, Wanchai). The AEC is a self funding organisation, part of the International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges (IDP), which provides counselling and information on the available options and assists with completion and submission of applications. The Centre caters to well over 100 potential students per day. It contains library of information on contributing schools and universities, a computer database on Australian education, over 150 videotapes and has eight counsellors who interview all applicants.

The principal reason applicants give for choosing to study in Australia is that relatives or friends live there or the family has an Australian visa and intends to move here after 1997. Comparatively few approach the Centre still undecided about choice of country to study in.

About 50% are applying to study overseas because they did not gain admission to the institution of choice in Hong Kong. (For students wanting an English language degree, the University of Hong Kong, with 12,000 undergraduate places in nine Faculties, is the only choice in the territory.)

Future migration is less of an issue than it was five years ago. Most of today's applicants assume they will return to Hong Kong to work and seem reconciled to giving the Chinese takeover a chance. Opportunities for work in Hong Kong and in the Special Economic Zones are a lot more rosy than in Australia.

Who makes the decision?

The extended family remains a strong institution in Hong Kong and the support of family and experiences of relatives is obviously crucial in the decision to study overseas. However applicants rarely visit the AEC with parents and appear to make their own decisions about course and institution.

How do they choose the institution?

Most applicants for university places arrive at the AEC with a good idea of where they want to study, often from relatives or family members or friends who have studied there previously. Word of mouth is the most effective form of communication in parochial Hong Kong - a city of 6.5 million people but with a small town Mentality. The most common reasons given for the choice are:

What are they worried about?

Most applicants are well informed about the geography, the economics and the political system. They know less about the Australian society and values. Australian news in the Hong Kong press tends to emphasise the parochial and the bizarre: the "Chinese" boat people lost in the North West, the election of Henry Tsang as Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, the murder of Dr Victor Chang, the fire bombing of Chinese restaurants in Perth.

Racial prejudice is an issue, as is organised crime in the form of Asian Triad gangs (a particular concern about Vancouver and San Francisco at the moment). but the major concerns of Chinese students today are no different to those of Australian students: financial and academic.

How are recruitment videos used?

The Hong Kong AEC screens a one hour program of videos each afternoon: "Study in Australia", a general introduction which covers everything from high schools to postgraduate courses in a breathless 9 minutes (produced for the IDP by Broadcom in 1990) plus a number of institutional promotional videos. The catalogue of holdings is posted outside the screening room and visitors can request to see any program.

The screenings are not well attended. No students watch the videos in order to make a choice between Australia and some other country, or even between one university and another. On the whole, videos are used to reinforce the decision the students have already made and they sometimes invite parents or friends to come and look at where they will be studying.

The programs are also screened by visiting educational delegations to introduce their presentations. According to Stella Chan, Manager of the AEC, this tends to be a more effective use of the video.

The sample

My plan for this study was to view all 150 programs held by the AEC but, after looking at 30, I could not bear to continue. It is an uninspiring collection: unimaginative, repetitious, poorly researched and seemingly more concerned with pandering to the egos of the university administration than with providing useful information to an audience of potential students. The commentary of one 9 min promotional video manages to list all 42 courses offered by the university (I counted), but the only way the editor could achieve this feat was to cut out all the pauses for breath! Of the 30 programs I looked at, 21 were produced by outside consultants "for the University Information Office" (or equivalent), the remainder were produced by the university's educational technology units. In style, the programs fall into two basic categories: I may appear to be being harsh and cynical, but the experience of sitting through 30 of these programs generated a mental state where I would willingly have shotgun blasted the screen the next time a surf boat turned turtle, a sheep dog hypnotised a ewe, or a grimacing Asian beauty cuddled a koala. Hypocritical I am not, having been guilty of producing more than my fair share of such programs in the past.

Apart from the excess of cliche and repetition, (and, after all, how many students are going to watch more than one or two anyway?) it is clear that many of these programs are being made for the wrong audience and carry messages about Australia which reinforce unfortunate stereotypes.

They are not all bad. The most popular program screening at the AEC is not about education at all. "Bridging the Gap" was produced specifically for a Hong Kong audience by the Information Office of the Australian High Commission to encourage business migration. It is simply a linked series of interviews with successful Chinese who have made it in Australia: Alderman Henry Tsang, parliamentarian Helen Sham Ho, actor Jackie Chan, Vice Chancellor Wang Gungwu and his wife, plus restauranteurs, estate agents, herbalists and business people. The program is parochial, comprehensible and very simple in structure. Watch the audience as they view it after one of the Australian propaganda videos - their expressions change from polite puzzlement to wide smiles.

Some production guidelines

The potential producer of promotional videos for a Hong Kong audience should bear the following points in mind:

Post-arrival problems

One of the first shocks to a Hong Kong student coming to Australia to study is the possibility of failure. At Hong Kong universities, once a student has been accepted, there is an expectation that he/she will graduate at the end of the course. The first year leaves a lot of time for social activities and, although the work becomes more difficult towards the end of the course, very few students fail. By contrast, attending an Australian university where first year dropout rates in subjects like Accountancy and Economics can be has high as 60% is extremely stressful.

Most universities taking overseas students either provide or recommend an introductory ELICOS course to ensure that the student's English is adequate for understanding lectures. Some even provide special counselling services and support groups for overseas students. Remedial English is of course necessary for many students, but a "satisfactory" score on an English test is no guarantee of success at university study.

Many Asian students come to Australian universities from an educational culture which lays stress on modelling and learning by rote rather than on academic argument and inquiry. It is not until one has mastered the known facts that one is qualified to offer an opinion. They see themselves as "observers and reporters not as participants" (Allison, 1991) and the idea of putting forward their own ideas in a seminar, let alone disputing the case with a teacher, is alien, not to say extremely rude.

For students used to working from a single textbook or reproducing the words of a teacher, the idea of going back to original sources and weighing the opinions of one authority against another is also unfamiliar, even threatening.

At the University of Hong Kong the problem of introducing students to a Western academic environment has been exacerbated in recent years by the changes in the composition of the student population I described above. English is no longer the language of communication outside the lecture room and in some faculties seminars take place in a mixture of Cantonese and English. The university has recently set up an English Enhancement Centre with the aim of improving the academic communication skills of undergraduates. Educational technology is playing a large part in this initiative with much use being made of video and interactive video and computer based materials in both classrooms teaching and self access centres. The aim being to increase interactivity and transform students from passive listeners into active participants.

We are late starters in this area, a long way behind the two polytechnics. The City Polytechnic, with the advantage of a newly built campus, wired for centralised computer and audiovisual delivery, a micro on every lecturer's desk and a planned ratio of one microcomputer to every four students, is making impressive use of the computer network for instructional delivery, assignment submission, marking and feedback, with the objective of increasing interactivity. Jonathan Marsh has described the strategies in detail in a recent paper for the Hong Kong AECT (Marsh, 1992).


The educational technology centre has an important role to play in the recruitment and assimilation of overseas students. This paper has described some of the characteristics of Hong Kong students and indicated a few of the less successful attempts to communicate with them.

Successful communication involves understanding the audience. Too few producers of these programs have asked the question "How will it play in Pretoria?" or Seoul, or Bangkok or Hong Kong... seeming more intent on designing their programs for the ego of the sponsor. Programs produced by university educational technology units, though lacking the technical sophistication of commercial products, are often more informative and successful.

For the overseas student already on campus, educational technology materials can be a valuable source of information and enlightenment as well as means to developing good study skills. Media Centres can assist by working closely with other professionals in ELICOS, Counselling and Study Skills centres, as well as with the students themselves (eg. through Overseas Students Associations); to produce programs, to make materials readily available and to come to know and respect the audience.


  1. "Sandwich class" is a term used in the Hong Kong press to describe wage earners with incomes too high for public housing but not high enough to own their own homes or to receive "perks" such as housing, entertainment and overseas education allowances.


I would like to thank Ms Estella Chan and the staff of the Australian Education Center, Hong Kong for access to materials held at the Centre and their generous assistance in providing background information for this paper.


Allison, D. (1991). From "Remedial English" to "English Enhancement". University of Hong Kong (unpublished background paper)

Marsh, J. (1992). Interactive Technology Based Instruction: Pragmatic Issues in Effective Authoring and Large Scale Delivery in Tertiary Education. Paper delivered at 1992 HKAECT Conference.

Universities and Polytechnic Grants Commission: Unofficial figures.

University of Hong Kong Counselling Centre (1992). Student Survey of 1991/2 Undergraduates.

Author: Ian Hart is an educational technologist with 25 years experience in educational video production. His current research interest is in the use of video in language learning and he has produced programs for the teaching of Russian, French, Indonesian, ESL and, most recently, Chinese. Prior to taking up his current appointment as Director of the Centre for Media Resources at the University of Hong Kong, Ian was Head of the Centre for Media Studies at the University of Canberra. His address is: Centre for Media Resources, University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong.

Please cite as: Hart, I. (1992). The view from "Clever City": Looking at Australian education through promotional videotapes. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 247-254. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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