Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: how to succeed as a university in just 25 years

President Tony Chan puts rise to world stage down to money, research-active staff and the lure of Hong Kong

December 17, 2015
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) campus
Source: Alamy/HKUST

Find out more about the THE Asia Universities Summit, hosted by HKUST

Rankings cannot measure everything, but even on their imperfect evidence, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has done remarkably well since it was founded less than a quarter of a century ago.

As it nears its 25th anniversary, the institution is positioned fourth in the world in Times Higher Education’s 100 Under 50 Rankings, a ranking of universities under 50 years old.

A separate survey of employers from across the globe ranked HKUST’s graduates as some of the most employable in the world, above far older institutions such as Imperial College London and New York University.

Tony Chan, who joined the university as president in 2009 after an academic career in maths and engineering in the United States, attributes the rise of HKUST to three things: a new model of research; money; and the attraction of Asia and Hong Kong itself.  

HKUST was the first university in Hong Kong where all academics were engaged in research, not split between teaching and scholarship, Professor Chan told THE while in London to celebrate the anniversary. This is the model that most top universities now follow, he argued, and it has helped to win his young institution global recognition.

Second, “you’ve got to have resources”, he stressed, pointing out that the university developed at a time when Hong Kong’s economy “was going from the Second to the First World”.

The success of HKUST is also part of a wider story about the rise of East Asia over the past few decades. “There was this sense that Asia was going to change. We attracted a lot of people – academics…who were tempted or fascinated by this possibility,” he said.

Less than 20 per cent of the faculty at HKUST are city locals, with 35 per cent from mainland China, and other significant cohorts from North America and Europe.

Academics born in mainland China, whose “academic DNA is Western” because their careers developed overseas, were also attracted to Hong Kong because “many of them want to come back to Asia, for the opportunities, for their families” but did not want to return to the mainland.

This is because of fears over the unhealthy environment – a particular concern if they have young children – or because of politics, said Professor Chan. He quickly clarified that he meant “academic politics”, in that they will have to fit back into an unfamiliar scholarly network.

“Hong Kong is East meets West. We provide an environment they are familiar with, they can thrive in their own career, and yet, they can take advantage of what’s going on in mainland China,” he said.

Is ‘best of both worlds’ model over?

But there are those in Hong Kong who wonder if this “best of both worlds” model is coming to an end. In recent years, scholars have complained of tightening restrictions on academic freedom as Beijing takes closer control of the intellectual climate in the former British colony.

In September, these concerns were heightened further when the council of the University of Hong Kong prevented a liberal professor, Johannes Chan, from taking up a position of pro vice-chancellor, drawing accusations of political interference.

Would a prominent advocate of democracy in Hong Kong be able to win a senior management position at HKUST? “When we look at senior leaders…I don’t think we ever talk” about politics, Professor Chan said. But on the flip side, the expectation is that they would not bring this “personal issue” into their role, he added.

Yet while some scholars in Hong Kong see dark clouds gathering over the academy, Professor Chan is keen to make further progress in research and teaching. “In terms of name recognition, we’re still nowhere near Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Stanford,” he said.

To address this, he wants to encourage HKUST researchers to lead their fields. “It’s not about how many papers we publish, it’s about publishing something that everybody follows,” he said – noting a global pathology to focus too much on pumping out research papers, partly encouraged by the influence of global university rankings.

He also wants HKUST alumni – the oldest of whom are only in their forties – to “wow the world”. Some have had successful business careers, but there are no Nobel prizes for them yet, he said.

HKUST students tend to want to succeed in business, but “we need more philosophers, we need more artists, we need more scientists and engineers as well”, he said.

Professor Chan is happy that the university has a reputation for working its students hard, but warns: “If they only go to class, exam, library, go to bed, there’s no room for them to be creative.” 

The Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings will be launched at the THE Asia Universities Summit, hosted by HKUST, on 19-21 June 2016


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