Merger confusion

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 12:00am

SCMP, October 8, 2002

Whether Hong Kong, with a population of less than seven million, should have eight publicly funded universities - nine if the Academy for Performing Arts is included - has been a point of discussion from time to time. But it was only after a University Grants Committee report made the call in May to nurture a small number of world-class universities that the debate began in earnest.

Secretary for Education and Manpower Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung felt he was going to create such a top institution by merging the Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology. He was also reportedly in favour of the Institute of Education becoming a part of the merged entity. But in opting to announce the merger, complete with a timetable, at a press briefing last week before the institutions had reached any formal agreement or consulted their staff, he has turned the education community against him.

Critics are concerned not so much about the rationale behind the merger but rather the way in which the matter has been handled by Professor Li. The education minister reportedly said that the power to merge the institutions rested with the government and he was prepared to force it through if the staff of the universities were opposed.

Professor Li was regarded as a politically astute academic with a forceful style of administration during his reign as vice-chancellor of the Chinese University, a post he held until he joined the government in August. Had he stumbled or did he deliberately break the story to force it onto the public agenda? From what he reportedly said, it did not appear he made a slip of the tongue.

Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect every university in the SAR to become world-class. But just as the synergy that is expected to develop from a merger of two commercial enterprises does not always materialise, joining together two successful tertiary institutions with different traditions may not necessarily create the centre of excellence that is the aim.

The past 20 years have seen rapid expansion of higher education in Hong Kong. In that time, the number of universities has quadrupled and the student population has multiplied many times. It is certainly time for an overhaul of tertiary education.

Yet however strong the case for merging some institutions may be, Professor Li's top-down approach is not conducive to a rational discussion of its pros and cons. The fear now is that a mood of distrust between the government and the education community has crept in. That may sour future dialogue between officials and interested parties.


in earnest (phrase) seriously and in a determined manner

turn someone against another (phrasal v) to cause someone to stop supporting someone else

rationale (n) fundamental reasons and principles

astute (adj) skilful at turning a situation to one's own advantage through one's own understanding of the behaviour and relationship between parties

stumble (v) to make a mistake

to make a slip of the tongue (phrase) to say something by mistake

synergy (n) the combination of two things that exerts greater impact

conducive (adj) tending to bring about a particular result

Discussion points

? People are criticising Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung's top-down approach in handling the merger of the two universities.

? Why shouldn't a government interfere with the operation of such education institutions?

? What are the pros and cons of school mergers?

? If a merger of your school was inevitable, which school would you like to be in? What would be your criteria?