'Agent of change' set to take helm at HKIEd

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am

The man who looks set to take the reins at the Hong Kong Institute of Education is known as a moderate democrat whose reputation for bridge-building has enabled him to get a foot inside the inner circle of government.

However, commentators say Anthony Cheung Bing-leung will face an uphill battle to convince staff and students he is not a government stooge and that his lack of experience both in education and in running a university-level institution will not impede his ability to do the job.

The external member of the Executive Council and former vice-chairman of the Democratic Party is a professor of public and social administration at City University, but has never held a management post above the level of department head and acting director of a research centre.

He has no education-related qualifications, although he has previously served on two advisory committees on training for school principals and was chairman of the Legislative Council's education panel while he was a legislator between 1995 and 1997.

However, staff and students at the institute were generally upbeat about the prospect of Professor Cheung taking up the post following their first meeting with him yesterday morning.

Trevor Bond, head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counselling and Learning Needs, said he felt Professor Cheung would be 'an agent for change' at the institute, while acting president Lee Wing-on described him as 'terrific'.

Feedback from the meetings will be put to HKIEd's ruling council when it meets on Thursday to decide whether or not to ratify Professor Cheung's appointment.

Professor Cheung this week declined to be interviewed by Education Post ahead of the council meeting, but did answer brief questions from journalists yesterday after facing staff and students.

He rejected calls for him to quit his Exco position, saying there would be no conflict of interests, but did agree to 'adjust or give up certain public roles' to devote more time to the job.

Council member Tai Hay-lap said Professor Cheung would need to brush up his knowledge of teacher training and get to grips with how primary and secondary schools work.

'Professor Cheung needs to work on these two areas, which he is not too familiar with,' Mr Tai said, adding that he was not a member of the search committee which put forward Professor Cheung for president and had only learned he was being considered for the post when the recommendation was made public on Wednesday.

He described Professor Cheung, whom he has known for 20 years, as 'objective, gentle and open-minded'. But he said Professor Cheung would need to know more about teacher training and build links with primary and secondary schools with which HKIEd academics had close relationships.

'We are not looking for a diplomat. We want a leader who is committed to the work at HKIEd,' he said. 'Even former education permanent secretary Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun did a master's degree in education.'

Lui Tai-lok, a professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has known Professor Cheung for more than 30 years, said the president-elect had strong administrative and organisational skills.

Professor Lui, an executive member of SynergyNet, a policy think tank which Professor Cheung helped found, said Professor Cheung had always been a 'pragmatic reformist'.

'He thinks that many changes have to be made in society but not necessarily drastically,' he said.

Professor Cheung's lack of experience in university administration might act in his favour, Professor Lui added, as it would make him sensitive to concerns of teachers and students.

Fung Ho-lup, an adjunct associate professor at CUHK, described Professor Cheung as a 'progressive liberal and intellectual'.

'He's a thinker and is mild-mannered,' Professor Fung said. 'He always tries to persuade others using logic and reason. I don't remember seeing him throwing tantrums.'

Professor Fung, who is also a key member of SynergyNet, has known Professor Cheung since 1971.

'Professor Cheung is dedicated to improving society. We were involved in many student activities at the University of Hong Kong,' Professor Fung said. 'He is reform-oriented and views the establishment critically.'

Many of those criticisms have appeared in the pages of this newspaper, in the scores of opinion columns Professor Cheung has written since the early 1990s, appearing regularly since 2004.

Those articles cover a wide range of policy areas, including comments on educational reform, academic freedom and the marketisation of higher education institutions.

In one of his few comments on the controversy over alleged government interference in the HKIEd's affairs, published in April this year shortly before the judicial inquiry got into full swing, Professor Cheung wrote about a widening gap between government and higher education institutions and 'a growing sense of alienation and suspicion among academics'.

'They find it increasingly difficult to square the trends of marketisation and quantified outcomes with the missions of universities,' he wrote.

'The current saga surrounding the proposed merger of the Hong Kong Institute of Education with Chinese University has attracted a lot of public and media attention about who said - or did not say - what to whom, and when.

'It has sparked various accusations about interference with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The independent inquiry must learn the whole truth, but the degree of scepticism and distrust revealed by the allegations does not bode well for the kind of solidarity and co-operation needed among education stakeholders for education reform to succeed.'

However, in 2002 and looking back to the Robert Chung scandal at HKU two years earlier, he wrote that the biggest threat to academic freedom in Hong Kong came not from government interference, but the rising trend of universities taking a corporate approach to management.

'It is not uncommon for government officials to try to influence academics, given the latter's importance as opinion leaders

. . . such acts do not necessarily amount to political interference.

'Protecting academic freedom does not mean inhibiting contact between the academic community and the political community.

'In debating academic freedom, much of the public attention has focused on intrusion from politics. Less noticed is the growing threat to academic freedom from institutional pressure and the encroaching market culture on university campuses, which are more insidious than political intervention.'

University councils were putting pressure on academia to perform to help institutes compete on a world stage, and there had been calls to focus government spending on a smaller number of elite universities.

'The future of higher education in Hong Kong does not depend only on one or two world-class universities, some highly paid star academics, or a few areas of research excellence. The bulk of our undergraduates and postgraduates receive their education in more 'ordinary' campuses from more 'ordinary' university teachers and researchers.'

But sceptics and conspiracy theorists who worry about the prospects of a 'government man' leading the institute so soon after concerns about political interference had been so publicly aired may be able to take some heart from Professor Cheung's continued criticisms of the Hong Kong political system even after he became an Exco member in 2005.

He has repeatedly called for an end to the executive-led system of government and argued for an independent civil service that has severed direct affiliations with its political masters.

'The political layer of government must be separated from the civil service, or administrative layer - and the earlier, the better,' he wrote in this newspaper last December. 'This is the only way to preserve the political neutrality of career civil servants within a politically formed government. The colonial model of government by bureaucrats is incompatible with the new environment.'