President optimistic about higher education recommendations

Shuyee Chen

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The reform of Hong Kong's higher education sector has been a widely discussed topic in recent months. In March, Professor Stewart Sutherland, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, produced the report commissioned by the University Grants Committee (UGC). The document serves as a blueprint for the future of higher education in Hong Kong.

Higher Education in Hong Kong , the recommendations of which will have significant implications for teaching and research, created another wave of discussion. The City University Staff Association organized three open forums to hear the views of staff, and will shortly relay its findings to the UGC.

Given the heat and excitement generated by the report, CityU's President Professor H K Chang naturally became a target of the news media for interviews. Yet despite the wide coverage, Linkage believes it was worthwhile to talk to the President about the subject. After all, the interest of the media may not be exactly the same as that of CityU staff.

Professor Chang concurred, saying, "I am a Hong Kong citizen, an educator, and the President of CityU. When I read the UGC report on higher education, these three identities are merged. However, it is my third identity the media is mainly interested in. That is why I respond to them as the President of CityU. Now, I would like to share my more personal views."

The report's recommendation of an academic structure based on a credit accumulation and transfer system has met with strong opposition from some university heads. They are worried about losing their better students to other institutions. Professor Chang, however, is not. "CityU's academic profile is extremely comprehensive. We have 4,750 associate degree places and evening programmes closely tailored to the needs of students. We are also conveniently located. Under the credit transfer system, we will naturally suffer losses, but we will also stand to gain. Ultimately, our gains may surpass our losses. Besides, as an educator, I feel one simply must allow students the freedom to choose," he explained.

Professor Chang does not support but has no philosophical objection to another recommendation university staff are very much concerned aboutNthat to de-link staff salaries from those of the civil service. "Why do the salaries of university educators have to be the same as those of civil servants? There is no basis for it theoretically or philosophically, and it is rarely practised in the rest of the world. In the end, I neither agree nor disagree. IOve asked the government to give us an explanation for why it wants to de-link now, on the grounds that it was the government that decided on the link in the first place. If they decide to de-link now, they owe us not only an explanation but also a time frame and an approach that will prove satisfactory to all," he said. To destabilize higher education for no real gain would not be wise, Professor Chang concluded.

As a citizen of Hong Kong , Professor Chang acknowledges that the government is being forced into an "impossible game". "Hong Kong has a narrow tax base and low tax rates. The government is faced with a deficit of about HK$60 billion a year unless it can find new ways to create wealth. Hence, in a way, the government has no alternative. Relatively speaking, university staff have much more stable jobs, and they are envied by many in the private sector."

Professor Chang does not believe that de-linking should necessarily lead to shrinking university budgets. "If the government does not cut its overall funding to the universities, then de-linking could hurt some but benefit others," he said.

As for the hotly debated research funding issue, Professor Chang said he is encouraged by the recommendation to link funding to performance. "What weOve been against is funding allocations based on history and labels. The new method will give us a chance to perform. I believe that as long as the UGC persists in using performance to determine funding, we won't fare badly. But if we fail to get funding because of poor performance, then we can't complain."

Professor Chang hopes to encourage colleagues with the sayings: "Ministers and generals did not inherit their titles. You are the one to make something of yourself."

and "Who is Shun? Who is Yu?* You can be like them if you strive to be like them."
He added, "It may be true that at the moment we are not likely, as a university, to be selected for strategic development. However, this only means we should continue to develop. It doesn't mean that we will never have the chance. From now on, we should work together even harder, in both teaching and research, while attempting to be balanced. I hope one day we can turn teaching into an "area of excellence". There is not a single good university in the world that has excellent research but poor teaching."

(*Shun and Yu are the most able and respected emperors in Chinese history.)




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