City University of Hong KongBeyond Boundaries: nurturing academic freedom in a changing global economy

Beyond Boundaries: nurturing academic freedom in a changing global economy

Humboldt University in Berlin, known for its early adoption of independence in education, is the third institution to feature in an interview series from City University of Hong Kong

University autonomy is at the forefront of leaders’ priorities in higher education systems around the world. A growing challenge is how to protect these values while modernising education practices in a way that gives a university degree longevity for students and ensures that research output maintains independent credibility.

In the third episode of Beyond Boundaries, a new interview series produced by City University of Hong Kong (CityU), president Way Kuo visited Humboldt University of Berlin to meet with Sabine Kunst, who was director of the institution until 2021.

CityU is an international university with a strong focus on diversity of education through cross-cultural studies. CityU and Humboldt University are alike in their emphasis on the integration of research within teaching and learning, making Humboldt the ideal candidate to feature in the series.

Named after its founder, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the university is famous as the alma mater of renowned philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But Humboldt’s greatest legacy is its approach to autonomy in governance and science.

The university was founded on the principles of being “lonely and free”, meaning it is independent from politics, religion and money, and promotes academic freedom, particularly in teaching and learning. Kuo has long espoused the critical importance of academic freedom ensuring that CityU remains politically neutral and focused on its core missions of learning, research and knowledge transfer for the betterment of society.

Humboldt is said to be the first university to have actively integrated research into its system of teaching, a philosophy that has gone on to influence all modern institutions. “In my opinion, it is a model university,” said Kuo.

Asked what she felt about the legacy of Humboldt today, Kunst said that the university was “proud” of the way its principles have passed down through generations of learning.

German students can access higher education in the country free of charge, which boosts accessibility but also brings financial challenges. Humboldt had to find “ways that we can work with low capital per student and [continue to] deliver quality learning,” she explained.

Humboldt not only focuses on academic research but also trains professionals in practical and vocational subjects. Alongside the country’s comprehensive universities and dedicated research institutions, a third kind of university exists under the category of “applied sciences”.

“It’s really important for our system to develop a distributed industrial landscape around the federal states of Germany,” Kunst said. In the past, the applied science universities were used as vehicles “to improve the development of remote regions in Germany”, she explained.

Kuo said there was “a lot” the Chinese education system could learn from Germany in this regard. “The Chinese pay a lot of attention to education, but the negative side of that is that they seem to overemphasise degrees instead of the practicality of the degrees…the German system could improve the way we operate in the community,” he said. “In other words, the utility of learning is important, not just the degree.”

“We all struggle with the utility of the degree. It’s not easy to always find a way for students to use their degree [through their] lifetime,” said Kunst. “Hopefully most of that which [the students] learned, especially the methodology, [allows them to] conquer new regions and new areas of science in their own way,” she concluded. 

Find out more about CityU’s Beyond Boundaries series.

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