It's now time to go fourth and multiply

June 20, 1997

At midnight on June 30, 155 years of British rule in Hong Kong cease. The handover to China raises complex questions for the colony's institutions, economy and citizens, with Hong Kong's thriving universities firmly at the core of its people's hopes and fears. The THES looks at the issues involved

Talk to academics in Hong Kong about what the future holds for tertiary education in the territory after the handover, and you may be surprised at some of the responses you get.

People from overseas might expect the phrase "loss of academic freedom" to figure often in the conversation. But academics in Hong Kong have many other issues to think about.

The issues fall into two categories - those that are a direct consequence of the change of sovereignty and those that would figure even if the handover was not bringing the glare of the world's media spotlight on the territory's six million inhabitants.

Many academics are convinced that the three-year undergraduate system has to go - and quickly. "Our students generally are not as well prepared as they could be for university life," says Gerard A. Postiglione, associate professor of education at the University of Hong Kong. "There's a very good possibility that the higher education system will be converted to a four-year system, probably by 2000."

Although China's four-year system could be used as a lever to force the issue, some academics feel world trends would eventually trigger the change anyway. K. P. Shum, president of the Chinese University Teachers' Association and professor of mathematics, thinks that Hong Kong must change if its students are to remain competitive in the job market against graduates from the mainland.

Shum will tell Antony Leung, who has been appointed by chief executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa to review the education system, that form seven should be dropped and replaced with a fourth undergraduate year at university. "We want the whole Hong Kong education system to be reformed," says Shum, who is also convener for the Joint University Teachers and Staff Associations Committee.

Increasing localisation of academic staff could also be seen as coincidental with the handover. In recent years many tertiary institutions have moved to abolish so-called expatriate terms for new appointments. According to Grace Au, assistant professor in the department of information and systems management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) this has been partly as a response to budget cuts (expats received benefits such as flights home and child education allowances) and partly because the system was seen as discriminatory. "That has caused some problems with recruitment," says Au.

But, according to Kevin Kwong, lecturer in social sciences at City University, the terms and conditions in Hong Kong would prove very attractive to academics from the mainland. "People with lots of qualifications are coming (from the mainland) as research assistants, because they can earn probably ten times what they could in China," says Kwong.

This potential and probable increase in the number of academics from mainland China is expected by most Hong Kong academics as a direct result of the handover, with many of the mainland academics coming via institutions in a third country, such as the UK, Australia, the United States or Canada. Although senior administrators are keen to reassure that there will not be a massive influx of mainland colleagues, some are concerned about the increase in competition.

Shum, for one, is concerned that local students will lose out in the race for positions in Hong Kong unless they manage to go overseas for their postgraduate study - and their chances against Chinese mainland graduates are stymied again by the three-year undergraduate system. "I think we should change to a four-year undergraduate system so that the academic standing of our students is at least as good as those from top mainland universities," says Shum.

There are other implications of an increase in the number of mainland academics. Because many will come from overseas they may even be more liberal than local scholars, says Joseph Chan Cho-wai, associate professor in the HKU department of politics and public administration. "There is a possibility that their ideology and political concerns may be different," says Kevin Kwong. "I am sure there is going to be an impact on the political sense of the youngsters in Hong Kong."

Links with the mainland and numbers of mainland students, particularly postgraduates, have been increasing over the past few years and are expected to increase further. Joint projects and collaborative research will also continue to increase, and ever more research will be geared towards the Chinese mainland. Wong Ming-hung, professor and head of the biology department at Hong Kong Baptist University, sees the handover providing exciting opportunities for cooperation in research. His feelings are echoed by Philip Johnson, professor and head of the department of clinical oncology at Chinese University. "In many ways Hong Kong has the technology and China has the patients and the problems."

The question of language is a major issue for tertiary education in Hong Kong. Contrary to some expectations, there has not been a switch in emphasis from English to Chinese. Many of Hong Kong's tertiary institutions have responded strongly to recent concerns over falling English standards among students. But why bother? Accordina to Ping Ko, dean of engineering at HKUST, Hong Kong must retain its competitive edge over China by keeping its international status, a feeling echoed by many academics. "Hong Kong became what it is today by being different from China, by offering things that Chinese cities cannot offer," says Ko.

Good standards of English will also be essential in helping Hong Kong fulfil another post-handover role - that of a stepping stone between its traditional academic partners and China. "The academic profession here in Hong Kong is very much integrated into the 'global academy'," says Postiglione. Hong Kong's position as a key communications hub "ensures full participation in the global academic discourse", and this is going to be important in the years following the handover.

Joseph Chan of HKU is one academic who did mention academic freedom. "I don't know whether I'm being naive, my colleagues may not share my optimism, but I don't believe that there will be any immediate threats over academic freedom, unless we censor ourselves. I think the immediate danger is self-censorship rather than anything else."

Chan adds that he has seen no evidence of any tightening up from above - but he has seen examples of self-censorship when collecting signatures from fellow academics for a campaign against chief executive designate Tung Chee-hwa's proposals to change the Societies and Public Order Ordinances. Some academics decided not to join the campaign because, says Chan, they were worried about how others may view this "political act". With a general move in Hong Kong to short-term contracts for academic staff, Chan agreed that staff on such contracts might be more vulnerable to self-censorship. "But I don't think we should say it's a too worrying picture."


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