More funding but less freedom for Hong Kong universities

Observers detect message that caution on criticism is price of increased funding, but suspect balancing act will be difficult to sustain

三月 8, 2021
Pro-democracy demonstrators raise flashlights outside West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts during a hearing for 47 opposition activists charged with violating the city’s national security law in Hong Kong, China, on March 4, 2021.
Source: Getty
Protests in Hong Kong erupted again in March during hearings for 47 jailed democracy advocates

Hong Kong’s universities are fast approaching a post-Covid crossroads, with a crackdown on critical campus activities intensifying at the same time that institutions are benefiting from significant increases in state and private funding.

Protests in the city, which had quieted since a 2020 national security law, erupted again this month during hearings for 47 jailed democracy advocates, including Benny Tai, a law professor fired last year by the University of Hong Kong (HKU).

Kevin Yeung, Hong Kong’s education minister, said on 5 March that the city’s universities should alter their curricula by the 2021-22 academic year to suit a controversial new national security law, and be prepared to “suppress” certain activities.

Tensions have been building on campuses for months. Police entered the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in January to arrest students and search dormitories, after alleged clashes with security guards. CUHK cut ties with its students’ union in February, causing its newly elected representatives to resign this month.

In February, HKU warned its student union against screening Lost in the Fumes, a documentary about a jailed politician, describing it as being “at risk of non-compliance with legal requirements”. Also last month, Hong Kong Baptist University cancelled a World Press Photo Exhibition, after its promotional video included news images of protests.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, called the closure of the exhibit “very striking”.

“It’s inspiring to see people pushing back – students holding up copies of the images. But things are changing so fast, it’s a moving target,” he told Times Higher Education. “You can do something one week, and you can’t the next. So university administrators are being watchful. It’s an erosion and disappearance of free space.”

Just as striking is the increase in funding at a time when most higher education systems worldwide are facing budget cuts.

THE analysis of the 2019-20 financial statements of Hong Kong’s eight public universities shows that all recorded a rise in both government funding and private donations, which have traditionally come from local tycoons or foundations with state ties.

CUHK and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), the two campuses where 2019 police actions were fiercest, did not see their budgets harmed by the conflict. CUHK’s philanthropic donations nearly doubled, while PolyU’s jumped by more than 60 per cent.

“The message is: you can still have a university seen as first-rate, even if academic freedom has declined. You can have facilities and labs that look great. What’s happening in Hong Kong is in step with what’s happened on the mainland,” Professor Wasserstrom said.

“Ten or 12 years ago, when there was a move towards opening up on the mainland, some university leaders tried to maintain some space for pushing the envelope or protecting vulnerable faculty,” he said. Based on his experiences travelling and lecturing in China, he felt that space has shrunk in the past decade.

Over the same period, Chinese universities have also received increased funding and performed better in global league tables.

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] would like to see things on the mainland as a model. So Hong Kong universities are being remade, not to be entirely like mainland ones, but with similarities,” Professor Wasserstrom said.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, told THE: “I think the increase in funding for higher education institutions in Hong Kong is intended to signal that, despite the changes unfolding on campuses, universities will be well funded to enable them to remain globally competitive.”

“Whether this can be done while academic freedom is being reduced is a different and entirely valid question,” he added.

Professor Tsang suspected that “instructions from Beijing will not be very specific”. It is more likely that “general sentiment” on dissent will be passed to Hong Kong university leaders, who will act to “avoid more direct intervention from Beijing”.

While Hong Kong universities are less free than they were a year ago, they are still relatively free compared with the mainland.

“Hong Kong university administrators are under a lot of pressure, but they can still manoeuvre,” Professor Wasserstrom said. “Hong Kong is starting from a position of much greater freedoms. However, the gulf between the systems became a chasm, and [it is] now an even smaller chasm.”

“For all the erosion of academic freedom in Hong Kong’s universities, they still enjoy much greater scope than their counterparts on the mainland,” Professor Tsang said. “The question is for how long can this be maintained? As a professor I can only hope that the erosion of Hong Kong’s universities proceeds slowly rather than quickly.”


Print headline: Funding grows as freedom shrivels in Hong Kong



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Reader's comments (4)

No doubt the increase in funding will be tied to STEM subjects where controversial 'thought' is generally not on the curriculum, scholarly inquiry is absent the personal or social context, and there are direct links to key industries. What will be interesting to see is what direction the humanities and social sciences go in as these are historically heavily scrutinized in autocracies and generally do not have the international cachet from these sorts of countries (note that China's performance in the global league tables is solely related to its emphasis on STEM).
Hello Timothy. Thanks for your comment. Yes, a look at the Hong Kong government's budget for this upcoming year shows education funding leaning towards STEM, although obviously not exclusively. Donors also generally like areas that are seen as new or high-profile (AI, high-tech, Covid response, etc), and not so much general liberal arts, humanities, etc. We'll see what happens.
Any info on whether expats are leaving the HK system? Anecdotally, I know several non-Chinese who have left quickly, some for jobs elsewhere, disliking or fearing the potential lack of academic freedom or the presence of the state. I imagine making long term career plans at one of the 8 public universities is pretty difficult.
There are anecdotes, but only those. It’s very hard to tell with a limited number whether people are leaving for political reasons or other more mundane reasons of family, job offers, etc. I suspect that the deciding factor may be more linked to subject matter than nationality. Like one may feel more pressure as a human rights expert than a chemist. In which case it doesn’t matter if one is “local” or expat. From what I can tell, HK campuses are still very international & many expat profs remain.