Talking leadership: Stephen Cheung on gaining university status

Outgoing EdUHK head reflects on a decade-long stint leading Hong Kong’s teacher training university

August 25, 2023
Stephen Cheung
Source: EdUHK
Stephen Cheung during EdUHK’s 2014 Alumni Homecoming Day

When Stephen Cheung started at the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK) in 2013, it was, in title and in reputation, a very different place.

Back then, it was called the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Newly appointed as its president, Cheung set off on what was – and would remain – his “biggest assignment” and accomplishment over a decade: securing university status for EdUHK.

His first task was to broaden the institution’s offerings to include humanities, social sciences, arts and culture courses in addition to its bread and butter, teacher education. After a benchmarking exercise conducted to ensure the scope and quality of its academic offerings, Cheung had to “go through all the political parties” to get lawmakers on board. The process, he jokes, made him some “enemies”.

Three years later, in 2016, EdUHK received the sought-after accreditation, becoming the eighth Hong Kong institution to be subsidised through the University Grants Committee. It was a “happy moment” for the institution and a high point in his career, recalls its outgoing head, looking a touch nostalgic as he gazes out across the lush green hills peppered with buildings, visible from the full-length windows of EdUHK’s administrative offices.

“The university community had been looking for this moment – the university title – since 1994,” he says, referencing the year of its establishment.

Beyond securing the university’s financial future, with the institution’s new status placing it among the handful of beneficiaries of Hong Kong’s generous subsidy system, the move began to shift Hongkongers’ perceptions of the university and its graduates, believes Cheung.

“Because we were not a university when we started in the ’90s, people always [would] have the impression that our students…cannot get into a ‘proper university’, a traditional university, and end up here in EdUHK,” he says.

Becoming a university helped to restore students’ “self-confidence”, Cheung suggests.

“I think that helped to raise the status of teachers in education…Teachers in Hong Kong need recognition. They need to be [seen as being] ‘as good’ as other university graduates,” he says.

He says the university got another boost when it beat out competitors to win funding from the World Bank to reform education in Vietnam – which demonstrated that “we can get into the regional community”. Since then, it has gone on to do other work in Southeast Asia, including in Cambodia.

“In our case, it’s a very good opportunity to be able to offer help, reflect on ourselves as well and see what kind of experience we can [take] from these emerging markets,” he says.

Since EdUHK became a university, it has also picked up some international recognition in the form of awards. Going from a “humble start, a zero start”, it has won dozens of international awards in competitions, including at the 2019 Geneva Invention Expo, where it picked up prizes for pedagogical innovation and AI for education.

But while these gains have helped to burnish EdUHK’s reputation, Cheung admits that the university is still struggling to get out from under the shadow of its past.

“We are the newest publicly funded university, and students with the best admission scores may not want to choose this university,” he says.

EdUHK produces 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s primary school teachers and some 30 per cent of its junior secondary school teachers, although few of its senior secondary school teachers – reflective of the fact that the university lacks a “full-fledged” faculty of science or economics and social sciences offerings. But Cheung does not anticipate a big shift in these statistics. “It’s very important to know your market,” he says.

That’s not to say that EdUHK has stood still. Recent times have brought change to its curriculum. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it moved quickly to create online teaching materials for primary schools. Recently, it launched a Chinese history animation series that has already had 10 million views, he says, claiming that teachers at all of Hong Kong’s primary schools are using it.

“That fundamentally changed how Hong Kong kids learn what I think is a boring subject,” says Cheung. “When I was a kid and I learned Chinese history, I thought it was extremely boring. They need kids to memorise names, Chinese dynasties, important events.”

Digital content will become a future focus, he believes. Last year, EdUHK designed a couple of new programmes, including in AI and educational technology. It also offered AI as an elective to all its academics and students.

“I think this is [the] way to go,” Cheung says. “Once we have new technology emerging, our students and staff should have the capacity to think [about] how to apply this technology in their teaching.”

While he is reluctant to project any agenda on to EdUHK’s next president, he says he is hopeful that his successor will mandate this for all students as well as faculty – “all teachers should know what AI is”.

His university already has a track record of doing something similar for coding, having launched a big project with the help of the Jockey Club – Hong Kong’s biggest philanthropic funder – to introduce coding in half the city’s primary schools. In the future, “we would love to work” with big technology companies in the vein of Huawei and Microsoft on edtech tools, says Cheung.

“We must continue to innovate,” he says. “People think teachers are very conservative and not capable in innovating – we should prove them wrong.”

But while the emphasis on digital offerings will grow, Cheung stresses that EdUHK is not about to do a 180-degree turn from its very pragmatic focus. “Yes, there’ll be more science and technology, but not pure research in sciences, in AI.”

In what may come as a relief to prospective students, Cheung notes that the key qualities EdUHK seeks in its incoming class have remained the same.

“You don’t need a genius to teach kids simple math, but you do need people with patience, compassion and a passion for teaching to work as primary school teachers.”

But if EdUHK’s model remains traditional, the challenges it faces are very much of the 21st century. Like other Hong Kong institutions, it must deal with demographic decline. Recently, Hong Kong policymakers cut EdUHK’s budget in response to dropping school enrolments.

“Last year, they reduced the admission quota of our university by 10 per cent already – this has been going on for some time in certain disciplines…and our funding, you can imagine, reduced by 10 per cent as well.”

If he sounds disappointed, Cheung tempers the sentiment. He says he appreciates policymakers’ logic, adding that the university must “respect” its place in overall policy.

“Hong Kong is an open society. The fact is, we witness a continuing decline in the student population,” he says.

Most of all – and regardless of who succeeds him or their priorities – he is adamant that the university must continue to meet the needs of the local community long after he steps down in September.

“The [purpose] of this university is to offer help, to grow together with the education sector. We should continue to serve the education sector.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles