Private universities boost academic diversity
University education has expanded dramatically since the 1970s to meet the demand for graduates created by Hong Kong's rise to pre-eminence as a regional centre of business, trade and finance. However, in two notable respects - private universities and the culture of philanthropic and corporate support for higher education - the city has been a late or slow starter.
The Executive Council's approval of university status for Shue Yan College - a private institution - is welcome. Private universities not bound by the bureaucratic constraints that come with reliance on government funding will bring diversity and innovation to higher and post-graduate education and research.
For 35 years since it was established as a liberal arts college by former legislative councillor Henry Hu Hung-lick and his wife Chung Chi-yung, Shue Yan has held out against direct public funding and a fast track to university status. That was the price of maintaining its educational ideal of four-year courses instead of the usual three-year degree (soon to be increased to four years across Hong Kong under education reforms now in the pipeline).
But the college has finally got its own way. It has developed degree programmes validated by the Council for Academic Accreditation, passed an institutional review of management and finance and gained self-accreditation status. Exco's formal approval was the final hurdle.
The couple were inspired to establish Shue Yan by an acute shortage of places for Form Six students aspiring to higher education. Until 30-odd years ago only 2-3 per cent of 17- to 20-year-olds were able to study for degrees at the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University. Those conferred by Shue Yan, Baptist and Lingnan colleges were not recognised locally, although affiliation with overseas universities offered offshore recognition.
Limited higher education opportunities were blamed on the colonial policy of not promoting growth in the ranks of the local educated elite. That changed rapidly in the 1980s and '90s under a more enlightened policy of expanding the provision of higher education. The Hong Kong Polytechnic was recognised as a university and two new institutions - City Polytechnic (now City University) and the University of Science and Technology - were launched. Lingnan and Baptist colleges, which unlike Shue Yan agreed to the government's terms, officially became government-funded universities in the 1990s.
Shue Yan's elevation to private university breaks the mould that degrees are available only from publicly funded universities or through programmes run in association with overseas universities. It is hoped the move will open the way for more private tertiary institutions to offer degrees. There is an argument for putting in place a structure for the awarding of degrees that does not frustrate people wanting a private university education.
Given that there are complaints about the quality of graduates from publicly funded universities, and that the standard of Shue Yan's student intake is generally not as high, the quality of degrees conferred by the new university will be watched closely. It will be a test of the vision of education that sets Shue Yan apart. The founders believe a four-year system is needed for personal development, with emphasis on traditional Chinese culture and the educational ideals of Confucianism.
Dr Hu has said he is not optimistic that tycoons will donate to the new university, to which he has devoted the latter part of his life and much of his capital. Let's hope he is wrong. Li Ka-shing's HK$1 billion donation to the University of Hong Kong last year kicked off a spurt of philanthropy towards higher education. But the trend remains in its infancy compared with overseas, particularly in the US.
Philanthropy and corporate support for our universities is important because it helps them raise their standing as centres of learning and excellence, so they can compete for the brightest students and teachers.