Hong Kong’s universities are striving to internationalise as part of the former British colony’s broader drive to become “Asia’s world city”. But a vital asset in this pursuit perhaps also poses a major challenge: the territory’s links with mainland China.
Eddie Ng, Hong Kong’s education secretary, talked about the city’s desire to become an “education hub for the region” during a recent briefing with reporters in London, and highlighted some key developments.
He noted that as part of the internationalisation drive, the Hong Kong government had lifted quotas on the number of non-domestic students permitted at the city’s universities from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the total cohort.
But as one Chinese reporter noted, the consequent rise in the number of students from mainland China is viewed with displeasure by some Hong Kong residents.
Turning to the supply of publicly subsidised places at the city’s eight universities, Mr Ng said it was “never enough. Therefore we also provide various forms of support to encourage private universities to set up their provisions in Hong Kong.”
The minister highlighted the plan for a foreign university to establish a campus at Queen’s Hill, once home to a British military barracks. Despite suggestions that the government might opt to use the 25-acre site for housing (land in Hong Kong is scarce and property infamously expensive), the education secretary insisted that it would announce a “worldwide bidding process” on the campus in the next few months.
Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, was sceptical about Hong Kong’s ambitions.
“The new internationalisation effort is to recruit more non-Hong Kong students, but the reality is that they are recruiting most from mainland China,” he said.
Hong Kong’s universities will have to recruit more non-Chinese overseas students if the city is to match “what the government rhetoric and policies say it would like to do, which is to be Asia’s ‘world city’,” Professor Tsang added.
The new Hong Kong government’s 2013 Policy Address, published last month, sets out the city’s strategy in its opening paragraph: “We have an independent judicial system” but also “close and extensive connections with the Mainland and abroad.”
In other words, Hong Kong offers a route into mainland China and its booming economy - but without its politics.
Many in Hong Kong’s universities feel that its institutions “have the kind of academic independence and freedom that universities on the mainland…still do not enjoy”, Professor Tsang said. But with the two political systems drawing ever closer, they “probably can’t say that publicly”.
Professor Tsang highlighted the visit by Li Keqiang, the Chinese vice- premier, to the University of Hong Kong in 2011, when protesting students were effectively “kettled” by the police. The university’s security response was “wrong” and raised potential implications for academic freedom, he said.
And he cautioned that if Hong Kong’s universities were to follow the Western trend towards more managerialism and less decision-making by academics, it could mean them becoming “a bit more like China”.