CityU Compromises on the College?

Peter Ho

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The anxious wait is finally over, sort of. On 9 May, the University Grants Committee (UGC) formally notified CityU that 13 of its 19 associate degree (AD) programmes would be cut off from government funding by 2008. Only six* will retain public support. The withdrawal process is to begin as early as in 2004-05 and end, within a more accelerated timeframe than previously expected, by 2007-08.

On 16 May, CityU President, Professor H K Chang, issued a statement expressing deep disappointment at the UGC's intransigence. He also reported that CityU's application for a land grant at Shek Mun had failed. In view of this and two previous failures to secure a separate site for self-financing AD programmes, the Management Board agreed that further attempts in this regard would prove fruitless. The President proposed to recommend to the Council that the University "phase out" the respective AD programmes in line with the UGC's schedule of funding withdrawal. However, he stressed, the University would seek Government assistance to offer a reasonable package to the affected College staff to compensate for the disruption in their career plans.

This news of the future of CityU's AD programmes is hardly a sudden development. Several times over the past two years, indications appeared in the media, creating a wake of uncertainty in the university community. The President himself also spoke out on the topic in several interviews with Linkage (Issue nos. 221, 220, 213 and 205). Last week's announcement, nevertheless, came as a shock to many CityU colleagues, in particular those at the College whose careers may now be cut short by the change in Government policy, and a barrage of questions and concerns has materialized via email and handbills. With these questions in mind, Linkage approached Professor Chang to find out what's behind the "controversy."

Q. The University made a decision and issued a press statement on the future of the College and self-financing programmes within days of receiving the UGC's notification on 13 May. Wasn't that a bit premature?

A. In a way, our hand was forced. The UGC told the media that they had informed us of their decision on 9 May. Faced with a profusion of inquiries from the media since late last week, the University recognized that it owed both staff and the community a prompt and definite response.

Q. Why did CityU lose government support in 70% of its associate degree (AD) programmes while Hong Kong Polytechnic University lost only 30%?

A. The UGC set three exemption criteria, criteria that protect certain AD programmes from being axed. These are: courses that require high start-up and maintenance costs, for example, access to expensive laboratories or equipment; courses that meet specific manpower needs; courses that can be regarded as "endangered species," that is, those that lack market appeal. If you look at our list, we have quite a lot of programmes in languages, computer studies, commerce and the like, that have a hard time meeting those three criteria. Moreover, there are comparable alternative programmes operated at a lower cost in the market. Conversely, Hong Kong PolyU offers programmes in fashion design, physiotherapy, optometry, etc. that are more vocationally orientated and are difficult for commercial providers to launch. Actually, after CityU submitted strong arguments to the UGC, our number of exempted programmes rose by three; initially the UGC had planned to withdraw funding from 16 of CityU's programmes.

Q. Some critics claim that CityU didn't push hard enough for the Government to support its AD programmes. Has the University given up too quickly?

A. The University has repeatedly made detailed written proposals to the UGC for the Government to continue to fund our entire range of AD programmes. In early March, for example, when it seemed that the Government policy of funding withdrawal had been set, I again argued for a six- to nine-year transition period for a switch to fully self-financing mode, instead of the accelerated conversion schedule recommended by the UGC on 27 February. Earlier, we made a bid on the Shek Mun site for our community college, based on a transition period of four years. Looking back, I have initiated the College Planning Committee, met with the College Board, its Executive Committee, the Staff Association's Concern Group on College Issues as well as a number of officials at the Education and Manpower Bureau and Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau. All these efforts were meant to get the community college started on the right foot. Certainly, we did our utmost, though in vain, to assist the Government in meeting the educational needs of the community at the sub-degree level.

Q. There is criticism that CityU did not really make its best efforts to secure that piece of land in Shek Mun for our community college.

A. We put in a good bid for the land in Shek Mun, with the University making a huge pledge to underwrite the community college concept, even though its financial future was not 100% certain. In the end, the evaluation panel opted for a proposal that, I think, proved to have the best potential to flourish financially. The Government first proposed in 1998 to boost the number of tertiary places in Hong Kong, mainly through a vast increase of AD places. Ever since then, I have negotiated with one senior government official in charge of education and land planning after another. We applied for the redevelopment of Tat Chee Yuen, and then for the use of a campus site on Tsing Yi Island. Both were unsuccessful, as was the case of Shek Mun. I don't think it's fair to say we did less than our best. We put forward our best possible proposal each time.

Q. Why aren't the self-financing AD programmes feasible? Was there any alternative to make these programmes financially viable, such as salary cuts and/or redistribution of workload?

A. In the past two to three years, as the University planned for the community college, we carried out a lot of scenario analyses. We asked ourselves, without any government subsidy, students have to pay full fee -- how much are they willing to pay? HK$100,000 a year? HK$50,000? Right now, the unit student cost at CityU stands at above HK$90,000, not including utilities and rent, etc. Some providers of AD education are charging HK$38,000 to HK$45,000 a year. Given CityU's firm commitment to quality teaching, a meaningful learning experience and a broad range of whole-person development opportunities for our students, I don't see how the University can pay for that kind of AD education without depriving the other faculties. Should we jeopardize the well-being of other faculties to "save" the College? I am not convinced that would be appropriate. Yes, reducing the present salary is an option. But by how much? 20%? 30%? I once asked our College staff, and they said they could live with that. Unfortunately, the calculations show we need to make cuts up to 50% or 60% of their remuneration package, including benefits, not to mention substantially increasing teaching load and class sizes, in order for the operation of the community college to be financially sound. Is CityU, which prides itself on excellence in teaching and learning, now willing to tread a path where quality is at great risk? Can we dip into our limited reserves to foot the bill for an unproven venture? Is it possible to do so without creating major problems for our other development projects? I really don't think so.

Q. If CityU finds it so difficult to continue AD programmes on a self-financing basis, what makes it possible for another UGC-funded institution (Hong Kong Baptist University, winner of the Shek Mun bid) to do so?

A. It is a matter of different cost structures in the two universities. Hong Kong Baptist University is new to the AD endeavour and should be able to build up the programmes from scratch and to employ people on new salary scales at significantly lower costs. CityU, on the other hand, cannot, take all existing government-funded AD programmes and transform them to self-financing mode without first knowing if substantial savings can be achieved.

Q. Does the decision mean that CityU is pulling out of the AD business forever?

A. No, it does not. We have stated that it doesn't necessarily mean CityU will be out of the loop when it comes to self-financing AD programmes. We are not giving it up. It's just that we have to examine other options in a different context in the future. The School of Continuing and Professional Education (SCOPE), for example, will look into the opportunities of running a series of post-secondary programmes, AD included, on a self-financing basis. We may consider revamping some of the AD programmes, giving them new academic content and new pedagogical focus, to make them distinctive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Q. Has the notion of "not financially viable" been communicated successfully to College staff? Do they have a good idea of what's coming their way?

A. All along I've been in touch with the College staff, through the Provost, the College Executive Committee (CEC) and the Staff Association's Concern Group on College Issues. Professor David Tong, (Vice President, Academic Affairs), Mr John Dockerill, (College Provost), and I met with the Concern Group before the arrival of the UGC letter and the results of the Shek Mun site application were known. After the Management Board announcement, the Concern Group issued a position paper, and right away I offered to meet up with their members. As of this moment, I have not received a final reply from them on my proposed meeting. The Group said that many of their colleagues are currently caught up with marking examination papers and that they would prefer a meeting with all College staff. Through my interviews with Linkage during the past year or so, I have tried to give everyone as clear a picture as possible on the things to come, save for the final answer from the UGC. I have also talked frequently to the senior staff at College Board and CEC meetings and updated them on the issues.

Q. Some say that by "offloading" the AD programmes, CityU has turned its back on its own history. What do you say to that?

A. It's true that CityU started off with sub-degree programmes such as higher diplomas. The ratio of sub-degree to degree places decreased from 100: 0, to 65: 35, and now 35: 65. But this reflects the gradual evolution of our institutional role, in tandem with a deliberate shift in the Government's long-term education and manpower policy in response to Hong Kong's development needs. Many of our colleagues have dedicated their careers to helping the University fulfill its role in the community. Now, it is sad to learn that the Government will no longer support an important part of our role (and our strength). We have not forgotten our roots, but we are asked to re-think and re-focus our purpose in the face of the challenge of dwindling resources.

Q. What is likely to happen to the affected College staff?

A. While advising that the Council phase out the respective UGC-funded AD programmes according to the UGC accelerated schedule, we are determined to implement a smooth "winding down" arrangement for our colleagues. The University will seek assistance from the Government to offer a compensation package to those whose careers have been negatively affected. Our affected colleagues deserve to receive a reasonable severance package from the Government since it triggered the process. With adequate compensation, some, if not all, of the staff may rejoin our AD programmes in a "re-incarnated" format.

Q. How would you describe the current sentiments of the College staff?

A. In my letter to the UGC Chairman on 16 May, I expressed CityU's reaction. I understand how disappointed, frustrated, and even angry, our colleagues feel over this Government-initiated "funding withdrawal" policy, because their careers have been disrupted and their livelihood put at risk. That's exactly what I have expressed in my letter to the UGC Chairman on 15 May. But I hope that in the very near future we'll be working together towards solutions to the problem. For example, we could redesign some of our programmes to re-employ a sizeable number of our staff. Simply taking over all the existing programmes as they are now is impossible. That, I'm afraid, must be emphasized.

* The six are: four AD programmes in the Division of Building Technology, one in Social Work and one in Media Technology (offered by the School of Creative Media).

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