16th September 2010
The University of Hong Kong's century-long tradition of excellence and a dynamic setting see it ideally placed to capitalise on the core strengths of its students and scholars, says Lap-Chee Tsui
What makes the University of Hong Kong special? To put it simply, it is a combination of the university's history, its tradition and its people.
Hong Kong, throughout its history, has placed a high priority on engagement not just with the local community but also with neighbouring regions. Given that it has almost no natural resources, the education of its people and its trade with other Asian territories, as well as more recently with its motherland, have been vital components of its economic success over the years.
The University of Hong Kong was founded in 1911 on an academically elitist model, and those high standards helped it to attract the best students from other countries and colonies around the world, a century ahead of the present trend towards internationalisation. At one point in the middle of the 20th century, there were as many Malaysians at the university as local students. You might even say that global recruitment was part of its policy from its foundation.
In terms of our people, the tradition of academic excellence, developed from those early days onwards, has attracted top scholars from around the world. Today, more than half of our faculty have joined us from outside Hong Kong. Our outstanding academics and researchers continue to be the backbone of our world-class university. We are helped by the fact that it has always been, and still is, the only university in Hong Kong with a stated policy of using English as its medium of instruction.
Today, Hong Kong continues to see its place in the world as a bridge between the East and the West. A quarter of our students are non-local. Western students are attracted to, and excited by, this cultural milieu, while Asians seem to take comfort from the cultural familiarity of a place within their own continent.
But where our students are concerned, again, history is relevant. More than a century ago, the university was part of an educational community where high schools, which were often church-funded, set high academic standards. The premium that Asian families continue to place on education, and particularly educational achievement, makes Hong Kong, as a territory in the heart of Asia, a place where learning is serious and competitive.
The competition for undergraduate places from mainland China alone is astoundingly fierce, with several of the 9,000 applicants to the university boasting the top examination scores in their respective provinces. We can admit just one out of every 32 applicants. But the fact that last year as the global recession was only just beginning to fade in Asia, 99.8 per cent of our students were employed just after graduation argues that it is not just the University of Hong Kong, but Hong Kong itself, that is the impetus for this huge number of applications. The university's standards are now defined as much by the current economic success of the region as by institutional history.
The university places a great deal of emphasis on students' independence in thinking, critical judgement and ability to deal with ill-defined problems. Self-governance is a trademark of all student activities.
Collegiality, I like to think, extends across the whole campus. Recently, we awarded an honorary fellowship, one of the most prestigious of the university's awards, to a silver-haired lady named Sam So ("Auntie Three" in Chinese), a retired member of staff at University Hall, a men's hall of residence.
Officially, Sam So was an assistant cook and hall attendant. In reality, she provided generations of young men — coping with university life, difficulties in their studies, questions about their future and, ultimately, the trials and tribulations of growing up — with maternal encouragement and support. These graduates would remain grateful to her all their lives. I am very proud that the university chose to look beyond a limited interpretation of academia and recognise Sam So for her generous and inspiring lifetime of real-life teaching and mentorship.
While speaking about history, collegiality and core values, I would be remiss if I did not mention Sun Yat-Sen, the man who helped found modern China in 1911. Not prone to sentimentality and certainly not afraid to take action, when he visited the University of Hong Kong, his alma mater, in 1923, he said: "I feel as though I have returned home."
While history and tradition form the basis for the development of the core activities — research, learning and teaching, engagement — of a modern university, it is inherently the core values of its people that truly shape a university of the 21st century.
Lap-Chee Tsui is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Hong Kong.