Recruitment of academics must start now
With local universities moving to a four-year-degree curriculum in 2012 and at least seven educational institutions expressing their intention to become private universities, Hong Kong will require some 2,300 extra professors and lecturers in the next few years.
University administrators face a big headache: where to find these qualified teachers. At stake is the quality of teaching in our local universities.
To meet this demand, university administrators and government officials need to sit down and devise a plan. The government might fear its involvement will incur the wrath of educators, who may criticise it for interfering in academic freedom. But it's wise for the government to intervene when there appears to be a severe case of imbalance in the market.
It is good news that local students will receive four years of university education, which puts them in line with their counterparts on the mainland. As more and more mainland students study here, and local students go to mainland universities, realigning the local system makes sense. However, in the process, the quality of teaching and education cannot be compromised. Hence, government involvement would not be unwelcome.
Some universities have already revealed how many staff they will need to implement a four-year curriculum. Chinese University, for example, said it would employ 400 more academics in the next few years. There are eight government-funded higher education institutions in Hong Kong; it is estimated they will need to employ a total of 1,600 professors and lecturers by 2012.
Then there are the seven educational institutions and religious organisations that have expressed an interest in establishing private universities.
It would be timely for the government to set up a taskforce, comprising officials and heads of all the interested parties, to discuss the way forward. Certainly, taxpayers don't want to see universities 'poaching' academic staff from each another - that won't solve the problem.
The taskforce should establish some ground rules to avoid poaching - which could potentially create a chaotic situation - but, at the same time, allow freedom of movement. That requires political will and skill, and mutual understanding among university administrators and the government.
The taskforce should also devise plans to attract talent from overseas. Money may not be the only concern for them; North Americans and Europeans care very much about air pollution and other issues, such as job opportunities for their spouses and education for their children. A government-led joint recruitment exercise overseas would be a good start.
Another pool of talent will come from the mainland. Can we not have a concerted effort to attract teaching staff from across the border? Can we not establish some ground rules, or incentives? The government can play a key role in co-ordinating promotional campaigns on the mainland, and streamlining procedures and restrictions for mainland talent to work in our community.
Each year, Hong Kong produces about 15,000 university graduates, 6,000 associate degree graduates and more than 10,000 master's level graduates.
We don't want to see the quality of teaching and education drop for our next generation. Nor do we want to find a chaotic situation developing over the recruitment of quality professors and lecturers.
It is never too early for the government and university administrators, as well as representatives from institutions that plan to establish private universities, to establish a joint taskforce to face the challenge. It's time we acted.
Victor Fung Keung is a Hong Kong-based commentator on political and education issues