• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 11:42am

Expect some surprises in second survey of Hong Kong academics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2007, 12:00am

Some are beginning to say that the days will soon be over when universities can attract the best and brightest. As salaries drop and workloads increase, as autonomy takes a back seat to assessment, and as academic values joust with managerial efficiency, the best and brightest young minds may veer away from a career in academia.


After all, universities in future may be able to survive by hiring a few international high-flyers to boost their position on global league tables while employing more part-timers on a course-by-course basis to handle the heavy teaching loads. In this way, universities can reduce costs and avoid many headaches. As Hong Kong ponders over its vision to become an international education hub, these are such options to consider. Moreover, Hong Kong may be in step with global changes, where part-time academics are already the norm in some countries and more academics now carry name cards with the phrase 'have doctorate, will travel'.


During the decades when Hong Kong was a one or two university town, the academic atmosphere was elitist and sleepy, few staff did research and teaching a couple of courses per year was the core of the job. Now, it is a nine-university metropolis with shouts about infringement of academic autonomy, where tenure can take a decade or so to earn, where research has become the core of academic life, and teaching loads have grown exponentially.


In 1993, Hong Kong participated in the First International Survey of the Academic Profession organised by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. At that time, Hong Kong had the youngest academic staff across the participating countries, but it was male dominated, with most working full time. Only three-quarters of academic staff had doctorates, and there were few recruits from the mainland. As 1997 approached, salaries had already shot through the roof. As the 21st century unfolded, short-term contracts became the norm, salaries were cut, and more academics worked part-time. On the positive side, women were hired and promoted in greater numbers (although all university heads are still men), and many talented mainland scholars have been attracted from overseas to work in Hong Kong.


The Second International Survey of the Academic Profession will take place this month in more than 20 countries, including Hong Kong and the mainland. Local academics will have an opportunity to indicate how their professional life, including teaching and research, has changed.


In the first survey, Hong Kong academics expressed satisfaction with the opportunities to pursue their own ideas. However, they ranked lower than those from other countries in being influential in shaping academic policies at the institutional level. They also agreed more than academics in other countries that top-level administrators were not providing competent leadership.


Hong Kong academic staff also indicated they felt a professional obligation to apply their knowledge to problems in society. But, when it came to pressure to do research and how much, only academics from one other country felt under more pressure than those in Hong Kong.


There were other important differences. In the first survey, Hong Kong only had three universities. Academic staff at these three universities had a much more positive view of the intellectual atmosphere at their institutions than those in other institutions of higher education. It is reasonable to expect we will find less of a difference in the 2007 survey as all have reached university status.


In the first survey, more than 40 per cent of academics indicated they were likely to leave their institutions within five years. Given the general increase in academic mobility worldwide, it is likely that this figure will be even higher now. It is also likely that there has been an increase in research collaboration, more pressure to raise external research funds, and more discussion about values and ethics into the content of courses.


Hong Kong has always had a reputation as an international city with a cosmopolitan outlook. However, two-thirds of academics in the first survey indicated that they thought the university curriculum needed to be more international in focus. Such views may have already changed due to student internationalisation and efforts to broaden the curriculum in preparation for the four-year university structure. The second survey will also ask academics whether they think their institution is more or less supportive of academic freedom.


The purpose of the survey is to obtain information concerning the attitudes, values, and work patterns of academic staff in institutions of higher education around the world.


When the Second International survey of the Academic Profession comes to Hong Kong next week, much will be learned about the changing nature of Hong Kong's academic community and how much its views reflect those of academics in other countries. We may be surprised.


Gerard Postiglione is professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.


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