Inquiry into academic freedom in Hong Kong

March 9, 2007

Judicial inquiry will look at claims that the Education Secretary meddled in an institute's affairs. Liz Heron reports.

A judicial inquiry has been launched into whether Hong Kong's Education Secretary and other officials have interfered in the academic freedom of a teacher training institute.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, announced the inquiry the day before a key electoral college ballot that launched his campaign for re-election on March 25.

But after hearing claims that the inquiry was too limited, legislators called on the Legislative Council (Legco) to begin a parallel investigation by a select committee that would also examine interference in universities.

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, the Secretary for Education and Manpower, and his officials have been accused of meddling in the affairs of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, whose ruling council - 60 per cent of whom are government appointees - voted last month not to renew the contract of the president, Paul Morris, from September despite support from the academic board.

Professor Morris said afterwards that Thomas Leung Kwok-fai, the council chairman, had told him last year that he would not be reappointed because he was unwilling to support a merger with nearby Chinese University. He later accused Professor Li of working "behind the scenes".

The row escalated after the institute's vice-president, Bernard Luk Hung-kay, posted on the institutional intranet an essay claiming that a senior official told Professor Morris to sack four academics who had criticised the Government's education reforms. He also accused the Education Secretary of forcing the institute into a merger.

Professor Li and Dr Leung denied the accusations.

The inquiry, which will be chaired by a High Court judge, is due to report in four months.

Mr Tsang said the commission would establish whether there had been any "improper interference with the institute's academic freedom or institutional autonomy" and would recommend how legitimate government advice might be given in future.

He said: "We treasure academic freedom in Hong Kong. These allegations are very serious and should not be taken lightly."

Legco's education panel backed the call for a select committee after hearing evidence at a special meeting last week from Professor Morris, Professor Luk and three academics who claimed that they had been pressured by officials for criticising education reforms. It was also told of three cases of alleged interference at other universities.

Professor Morris said there had been a "consistent pattern of systematic activities over the past five years" amounting to interference that went beyond the two instances in the terms of the inquiry. Professor Luk said the Education Secretary had threatened him with legal action.

Professor Li and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, the former Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower, declined to attend the meeting.

The establishment of a select committee inquiry would need to be approved by the house committee, but the pro-government parties indicated that they would not support it. A spokesman for the Education and Manpower Bureau said it would "render full support" to the inquiry.

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