Hong Kong, or Fragrant Harbour, is not perhaps as aromatic as it once was but jobs are available, the pay is high and tax is only 15 per cent

August 27, 1999

Sits.vac:Pounds 98,000 (no popes please):

* What it costs and what you earn.

Low tax rates, excellent benefits and generous salaries all add up to make Hong Kong, at first glance, a very attractive package for academics.

A 1998 survey by the Commonwealth Higher Education Management Service reveals that academic salaries in Hong Kong are top of the table for Commonwealth countries, worth double those paid to UK academics.

But in a city where property is among the most expensive in the world, a serious salary is a prerequisite. According to Nigel French, secretary-general of the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong, accommodation is "at least as expensive as in central Tokyo, New York or London".

Salaries in Hong Kong's higher education institutions are linked to civil service scales, with pay for each rank fixed by government. An assistant lecturer on the bottom rung can expect a starting salary of about HK$34,000 (Pounds 2,700) a month (Pounds 32,400 a year). A mid-range lecturer can expect closer to HK$720,000 (Pounds 57,600) a year, while for a professor salaries start at HK$1.2 million (Pounds 98,000) a year.

From there, says Arthur Li, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the "sky's the limit". According to French, salaries for professors reach as high as HK$150,000 a month (Pounds 144,000 a year). Li elaborates: "We only pay 15 per cent tax on salary," he explains. "Most of the money you earn, you take home." He adds that academics can expect a housing allowance, campus accommodation for three years, and even financial assistance when buying an apartment.

But there are threats in the air. The collapse of the Asian markets is biting. Higher education expansion is on hold and, according to French, there is a trend in business and government to reduce entry salaries by 20 to 30 per cent, though this has not yet affected universities.

* Yesterday's expansion and tomorrow's needs.

Hong Kong boasts eight major higher education institutions, all built or expanded over the past decade. The decision by the Hong Kong authorities to expand HE numbers came in 1989, post-Tiananmen Square. While ten years ago only 9 per cent of 17 to 20-year-olds were students in Hong Kong, by 1994-95 that figure had risen to 18 per cent.

The overnight expansion in student numbers and in research degrees was accompanied by massive academic recruitment. Between 1990 and 1995, 3,500 new staff were offered jobs in Hong Kong's universities, almost doubling the number of academic staff. Many of the newcomers were academics of Hong Kong, Chinese or Taiwanese origin who had been working in the US - attracted back by an expanding university system, increased investment in research, and, says French, a "real feel of returning to the motherland".

But since 1995-96 student numbers have been flat. Targets were reached and a planned three-year consolidation has turned into a longer standstill. There are no longer the mass hirings of the early 1990s; in fact successive 10 per cent cuts to university funding from 1998-2001 mean some posts will not be filled.

Yet lecturers in some subjects are still in demand. These include the sciences, engineering, computing, business and technology. English language teachers are also needed, while a recent change requiring all Hong Kong school teachers to have degrees may signal future demand for teacher-trainers in Hong Kong's universities.

* How to get there and what to expect.

Traditionally, Brits have filled Hong Kong's universities. But the most recent expansion did not particularly recruit from the UK and today, of approximately 6,000 academic staff, about 800 are on ex-pat terms, including about 200 from the UK, with many of the remainder from North America. For Brits wanting to work in Hong Kong there are few restrictions. No visa is required, though a work permit must be sought on arrival.

The hand-over to China was punctuated by fears of restrictions on academic freedom and interference from Beijing. But French says China has so far scrupulously honoured its agreement to leave higher education to the autonomous Special Administrative Region, though he adds that "some individuals feel that they are perhaps being circumspect about what they teach and research".

* Research and teaching.

There's no escaping the Research Assessment Exercise in Hong Kong. They have already had two, and a third is due later this year. The development of a research culture in Hong Kong's universities is relatively new. Until 1988 there were no individual research grants for academics and universities' key role was to teach rather than research. The first RAE, with direct influence on university funding, was in 1993. "The perception here is that there has developed a very strong research culture," says French. He cites a 1993 Carnegie Foundation report that surveys academic attitudes worldwide. It found that Hong Kong academics, more than anywhere else, felt that pressure to do research was affecting teaching. "That was clearly not the case," says French. "But the changes had been so marked in a short period of time, that was the perception."

The Hong Kong University Grants Committee has tried to redress the balance by setting up a Teaching and Learning Quality Process Review, and developing the next RAE to take in a wider definition of research, including scholarship.

Most academics in Hong Kong both teach and research, though at the research-intensive universities, including the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology, there are some research-only posts. Similarly at the former polytechnics, including the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the City University, not all staff are expected to do much research. Research and teaching are equally important when it comes to promotion.

Julia Hinde

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