Stubbornness finally pays off

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 December, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong finally has a private university. The transformation of Shue Yan from a post-secondary college to a university is as much about the institution's own efforts to strive for excellence as about this city's change of political status.

From now on, the supply of university education will become unlimited, at least theoretically. While the provision of public-sector university places will continue to be determined by government policy, anyone will be free to set up private universities. Their quality will be assured by a validation framework laid down by the government.

This is a major policy change that was unthinkable when Hong Kong was a British colony, before 1997.

One of the stinging complaints against the colonial administration was the tight rein it kept on higher education. Until the early 1980s, Hong Kong had only two publicly funded universities - the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University. They provided first-year, first-degree places for just 2 per cent of young people.

That limit was blamed on scarce public resources, but critics deemed it a colonial plot to keep a lid on the bright and ambitious. The plot was difficult to prove or disprove. But the objective fact was that young people spent much of their energy climbing a steep and narrow academic ladder. Those who succeeded were rewarded with plum jobs in the government and the professions, while those who failed had to settle for less.

University education was not expanded until the last years of colonial rule. The number of places increased in the 1980s and 1990s to 18 per cent of young people. That figure has remained unchanged.

The increase was achieved by upgrading two polytechnics to universities, setting up the University of Science and Technology and absorbing the private, post-secondary colleges Baptist and Lingnan into the public sector.

One of the painful decisions that Baptist and Lingnan had to make - to obtain public funding and achieve university status - was to change the duration of their courses from four to three years, and admit A-level students instead of those with six years of secondary education.

Shue Yan refused to make those changes, and was therefore excluded from the public sector. Authorities ignored its cries for a fair assessment of the quality of education it provided, even as its diplomas gained increasing recognition overseas.

Now Shue Yan's stubbornness has paid off. Hong Kong's education system is set to adopt the 3-3-4 structure it prefers - three years of junior secondary, three years of senior secondary and four-year degrees - from 2009.

The recognition of Shue Yan as a university is an opportunity for the community to reflect on a few issues. Many people harbour deep suspicions about the quality of our university graduates. In an unofficial pecking order of our tertiary institutions, Shue Yan does not rank high.

Are people demanding too much of university graduates? Or are our official standards for degrees too low? What proportion of our population is able to benefit from a university education? Should the provision of higher education be driven by supply, or by demand?

In 2000, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa decided to provide post-secondary education opportunities to 60 per cent of school-leavers. The public universities responded by launching self-funded, associate degree programmes. Will they now go one step further, providing self-funded degree programmes to meet the demands of associate degree graduates for a full degree?

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy