Rationalisation is a familiar procedure in commerce and industry, but is less often associated with academia. But that, essentially, is what core member of the Education Commission Professor Cheng Kai-ming was proposing when he broached the subject of a merger between some of the SAR's seven universities.
His proposal has merit on several fronts. Carefully handled, it could enhance the evolution of higher education to complement the reforms the commission has already proposed. Universities have been under increasing pressure to scale down their programmes in recent years. The Chinese University is to cut 15 places in its medical school in the coming academic year and says it has had to turn down applicants of good academic standard.
Faced with similar constraints, some university heads have expressed concern about the funding to handle the proposed four-year degree courses. A shake-out of the system, amalgamating identical courses and cutting wasteful duplication of resources and manpower, could produce savings to smooth the change-over when the extra year is introduced in 2007, or shortly after.
Practicalities aside, a merger would chime in with the plan to offer transferable credits, allowing students to move between universities. A smaller number of institutions, each with its own particular areas of specialisation, would make that system much more effective. It makes little sense in a city with a population of 6.7 million to offer five separate degree programmes in social work. Scaling back to three seems a logical move.
Nor does the present arrangement seem to be working as well as it should. Business leaders complain that graduate quality is markedly lower than it was when only the privileged two per cent went on to higher education. Today 18 per cent of the 18-24 age group go on to local universities, which swallow up one-third of recurrent spending in the education budget. If standards really are falling, the cause should be investigated.
More efficient use of resources could produce larger universities, with better libraries and improved teaching facilities.
The challenges in striking the right balance cannot be underestimated. But sensitively handled, there could be benefits for all participants; and the quality of learning will become higher.