Culture wilts on the shelf

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am


Celebrated translator Professor John Minford has his hands full.

The sinologist, known for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone and The Deer and the Cauldron, is working on two other masterpieces for Penguin Classics: the I Ching (Book of Changes) and Laozi's Daodejing.

Each is a mammoth project and Minford, based at Chinese University, has already spent 12 years on the I Ching. Over the years, the demands of his translation work have been so great that Minford has had to take time out from his academic career to finish translating the books. In the late 1990s, he even left his chair professorship at Polytechnic University to work on Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

But while the work has won global acclaim and is now a valuable source for other academics, it does not attract research grants, a factor that will increasingly determine how universities are funded.

An upcoming change in the University Grants Committee's funding model for universities - which will tie funding more closely to the research grants each institution attracts - could even further marginalise the work that translators like Minford do.

The committee allocates funding to the city's universities. For a period of nine years starting from September, 12.5 per cent (about HK$1.35 billion) of the committee's block grant - or money for general spending - will be determined by the number of research grants each institution gets.

The science and engineering disciplines have traditionally captured the lion's share of research grants. Of the 801 projects approved for funding by the city's General Research Fund last year, only 141 were in social sciences, the humanities and creative arts. In terms of grant applications, these fields had a success rate of 22 per cent, compared to 37 per cent for business studies and 45 per cent for the physical sciences.

Many fear the funding change will drive universities to focus resources on trendy disciplines to secure more funding. This, they say, will not augur well for Hong Kong's aspirations to be a cultural hub despite the construction of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

'I look at the talented students I teach, and see that the opportunities we have within the university system for giving them scope to explore their creative potential are so limited,' Minford lamented.

He owes his own vast accomplishments largely to the support of overseas foundations, which have allowed him to focus on his work outside the university system with no strings attached. He cited, in particular, support from Taiwan's Council for Cultural Affairs, which gave him a three-year grant in the 1990s to do the groundwork for his translation of Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.

'The only way I have been able to do serious work of this sort has been by, every now and then, dropping out of the academic system,' he said.

'Across the world, universities no longer provide a broad humanistic or spiritual inspiration to a whole generation of young minds, choosing instead to use mechanical methods of evaluating achievement.

'They are surely failing in what should be one of the prime functions of education.'

Lingnan University, with its strong focus on the arts and humanities, as well as teaching, is likely to be most disadvantaged under the new funding regime. So it has made its concerns known to the committee.

'As a liberal arts college, excellent teaching and student development have to come first for us,' Professor Chan Yuk-shee, the university's president, said. 'We are not a big gobbler of resources, but we need adequate funding for what we do - from research to good teaching.

'We have made the point that it's very important to make sure the change will not cause a major distortion of funding.'

The committee has promised to review the funding mechanism around 2014, and give HK$20 million in extra funding each year to humanities and social science academics, including money to expand relief-teaching grants and for a new fellowship scheme.

But that has failed to allay academics' concerns about the drive to seemingly increase competition among the universities. Arts faculty deans from various colleges are drafting a letter to the committee to call for a different funding model for their disciplines.

'We'd like to see competition and accountability, but the new funding model will only see departments fighting one another,' Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, dean of Lingnan's arts faculty, said. 'It has to be a reasonable model that does not stifle the development of various disciplines, nor makes academics spend a substantial part of their time applying for unnecessary grants.'

Henry Wong Nai-ching, a chemistry professor and pro-vice-chancellor of Chinese University, concedes a race lies ahead for departments. 'We are moving into a model in which the allocation of graduate student numbers for departments will be dependent on their number of grants obtained. Some small departments may shrink in size,' he said.

But Wong is calling on fellow academics to brace for the challenges. 'Academics from the humanities and social sciences make up about 34 per cent of the total number of academics here and they can raise their percentage share of grants accordingly,' he said.

Professor Joseph Bosco, from Chinese University's anthropology department, maintains that the need for grants varies from field to field. In his field, academics often spend a lot of time doing fieldwork themselves, unconstrained by the constant need to apply for grants.

'If I hire assistants to do my research, it is really mediocre work,' Bosco said. 'I don't think the model that focuses on grants and counts the number of publications makes sense.

'In some disciplines, people write many articles in a year. In the arts and anthropology certainly, if you write one article a year, that is very good. You are supposed to also be working on books.'

Bosco also questions the level of support for the humanities that members of the committee have, since most of them are related to the business sector. Others say this apathy is shared by the general public.

Professor Cheng Pei-kai, director of City University's Chinese Civilisation Centre, said: 'I have found that for many students all they want in life is to find a job and make money.

'It seems that society and the committee are not interested in humanities subjects. They are more interested in immediate outcomes, for example, research output. But in education you can't see results in one or two years. You cannot judge humanities in that way.'

Nevertheless, that's just how some grant applications seemed to be assessed. Two years ago, prominent writer Leung Ping-kwan sought a HK$1 million grant from the Research Grants Council to study Hong Kong culture and literature in the 1950s, when the territory saw an influx of cultural figures such as writers, film directors and journalists from the mainland.

Leung says the project could yield insights into Hong Kong's cultural identity and past trends like the publication of short story series in newspaper supplements. That's important given that the art of story-telling is already lost in Hong Kong, he says.

'All the reviews about my proposal were good, but I got only HK$300,000 in the end, with no reasons given,' Leung said. 'We need money to compile things, print things from old newspapers and microfilm, hire young people with very good eyes.'

In the end, Leung, a chair professor of comparative literature at Lingnan University, turned to the Arts Development Council for extra support.

'They [the council] understand more about the humanities than the committee,' he said. 'They support more adventurous creative projects and are more in touch with the real process of creation; universities ought to be doing that too.'

For literary translator Minford, there is an even deeper problem: support is given to scholars dissecting his work in high-flown theoretical terms and publishing their findings in academic journals.

'Why do the creators of the original material under dissection not themselves receive support?' Minford asked. 'Why are writers and translators not held in high regard by our academic communities?'


The amount of funding, in HK dollars, from the General Research Fund the arts faculty of Chinese University obtained for 2011-2012