Fragmentation ‘hampering Hong Kong universities’ social research’

‘Systemic barriers’ hinder universities’ efforts to tackle the territory’s major problems, says report

September 20, 2019
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The competition between universities and the way research funding is administered are policies hindering openness in higher education institutions in Hong Kong

Hong Kong universities’ efforts to tackle social problems are hamstrung by unsupportive funding arrangements, go-it-alone attitudes and a focus on theory rather than application, a report says.

A stocktake of Hong Kong universities’ “social innovation” activities – research, teaching and community engagement focused on problems such as poverty, ageing and isolation – has found that they are fragmented, ad hoc and undervalued.

A literature review was able to identify only about 50 home-grown academic publications about social innovation, half of them lead-authored by just six local experts. Almost three-quarters of research projects involved no external collaborators, often replicating work happening elsewhere in the territory.

The study, published by the British Council, found that Hong Kong’s 60-odd social innovation courses were mostly elective subjects concentrated in four institutions. A smattering of knowledge exchange and community engagement activities largely involved academics holding board or committee roles “rather than active research-led engagement”.

The research pinpointed “key social problems” including housing – widely cited as an underlying cause of the youth disaffection fuelling the current protests – as well as social inequality and ageing. But lacking the coordinated focus of university collaborations elsewhere – such as Australia’s Centre for Social Impact, the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation – Hong Kong higher education was not well positioned to address these problems, the report says.

It adds that “positive trends” in universities’ social innovation efforts are being undermined by policy settings.

“There are systemic barriers in HK to collaboration in this field, such as the way research funding is administered and the competition between higher education institutions,” Jeff Streeter, the British Council’s Hong Kong director, says in the report’s foreword. “While there is significant work going on and strong interest from researchers and students alike, much more needs to be done.”

The report says that with funders of social innovation research wanting the results published in high-ranking journals, much of the research is inevitably theoretical in nature.

Collaboration is stymied by a dearth of social innovation champions in universities and by a lack of “top-down” support for impact research, the report adds, although a 15 per cent impact weighting assigned to next year’s research assessment exercise – coupled with Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s commitment to double research and development spending – could help.

The report offers eight recommendations to boost social innovation in the territory’s universities, such as making impact a criterion for academic tenure and developing new funding streams for “multidisciplinary, pan-institutional, applied research”.

Report co-author Yanto Chandra said that social innovation, as a “relatively new field” globally – and even younger in Hong Kong, where the first course started in 2012 – offered scant opportunities for career advancement.

With only a handful of dedicated journals, none of them considered mainstream, social innovation academics needed to publish in other fields to earn tenure and promotion.

Dr Chandra, a social entrepreneurship specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, stressed that the project had not investigated the current protests or their underlying causes. But he said higher education had a “central” role in generating solutions to problems such as the affordability of housing.

“Governments are always under observation by the public,” he said. “It ties their hands if they want to do something innovative. University is where new ideas about solving social problems are created and disseminated.”

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