Defining and redefining our role

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Dear colleagues,

At the 18th Congregation that has just been successfully completed, I was delighted to see another batch of 6,024 students graduating from our University. Amidst the intense discussion of the issue of budget reduction in the higher education sector, it is encouraging to learn that government officials have promised to look into ways to minimize the 2005-08 cuts. While CityU will strive to continue to provide quality education with reduced resources in future, I believe it is also time for us to ponder on what we aspire to be. In an open forum with CityU students on 19 November, the Secretary for Education and Manpower Professor Arthur K C Li told the public once more that not all univer-sities should develop into "comprehensive and research universities" in the long run, universities have to identify their areas of excellence. Let me take this chance to add a little more to a topic I raised in this space in September.

Two months ago, I said CityU faces three challenges, one of which is role differentiation. This issue has not been widely discussed among the staff at large. However, we have to come to terms with what CityU's role and mission will be in the years to come. An event that took place years ago will help put the issue in perspective.

When I first assumed the position of President in 1996, I was invited to the University Grants Committee to defend CityU on our postgraduate programmes. At that time, it was felt that CityU perhaps had expanded too rapidly into postgraduate studies, the symptoms of which could be found in a lower graduation rate and a longer period of study students needed to graduate. I responded by saying that since a higher percentage of our postgraduate students were on a part-time mode with family and career commitments, it was understandable that there was a higher dropout rate among them and they needed a longer duration to complete their studies. CityU was doing a good service to the society by giving these people a chance to pursue advanced studies. It had, in fact, little to do with the quality and readiness of our academic staff, nor with the academic infrastructure support of the University.

In the past seven years, this type of dialogue has resurfaced many times in different forms in my encounters with UGC. Individual members of UGC and people in the society in general and those working in the tertiary sector in particular do have admirations for our academic achieve-ments and the speed with which we have attained them. They often wonder, however, if we have given ourselves a clear definition of what we wish to become and what our role will be.

It is against this background that the recent visits of the chairmen of two UGC groups, respectively, on role differentiation and academic development, held particular significance. We presented to the visiting panels a picture of the University, like a growing tree, that has grown to a well-balanced state. Yet following the funding withdrawal of our Associate Degree pro-grammes, a significant part of the tree—some big branches—will unfortunately have to be cut.

In regrowing, we believe we should not try to become a so-called "comprehensive univer-sity". We should, as defined in our 2003-08 strategic plan, align our activities along the axis that links professional education and applied research. In my numerous meetings with UGC in preparing for the panel visits, I have not detected any signal that UGC will declare CityU a purely teaching university. Nor do I believe the UGC will consider CityU deserving more generous support for a wide range of intense research activities. UGC, however, does have a right to ask us if we hope to become a comprehensive, research-intensive university. In both our presentations to the UGC panels, the University has made it clear that CityU does not aspire to be a comprehensive university, nor does it think it will become research-intensive in all its chosen disciplines. We want to encourage all academic staff to develop their scholarship through research and discovery but we can only afford to concentrate our research resources on some selective areas. A careful look at the degree programmes we now offer will tell any discerning observer that CityU is oriented towards professional education. At the same time, most of the research achievements and the recipients of some considerable funding in the past have been in applied research areas where application of knowledge has the potential for practical use and/or commercialization.

I recall a year or two ago, before the release of the Sutherland Report on Higher Education, there were some concerns among our staff that UGC might declare us a teaching-only univer-sity. Today, we have successfully stamped out that possibility with our proven track record and power of persuasion. However, in the coming years of dwindling resources, we do need to answer the persistent question from UGC on what role CityU wishes to play to the advantage of society. After all, as many of you are aware, 10% of future UGC funding to universities is going to be performance-based, tied to their defined role and mission. This is a question we need more discussion among our colleagues.

 

H K Chang
President and University Professor

 

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