Becoming a university demands more than a change of signboard

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

Last week's Education Post contained two interesting articles which, when the points from each are considered together, give serious cause for concern. One reported on the 'dumbing down' in Britain, when some new universities drop any pretence at maintaining good academic standards. The other highlighted the increasingly desperate attempts by the Hong Kong Institute of Education to be renamed as a university.

It is an easy thing to rename a college, polytechnic or institute as a university. But it is another - and much more difficult - thing, requiring deep and wide-ranging changes, to enable it to really live up to that enhanced title.

To operate as a university deserving of that title requires far more than a change of signboard over the entrance gates.

A few years ago many colleges in Britain became 'universities' overnight. That move has been widely derided - not least by potential employers of these new swathes of graduates. In too many cases the necessary upgrading of their entry requirements, academic standards and staff, facilities and indeed whole ethos did not occur. They remain lower-level educational establishments and are universities only in name, not in reality.

Hong Kong already has a number of educational establishments, the names of which are aspirational rather than accurate. A playschool called Little Genius and another called (surely a contradiction in terms) Wise Kids, are examples.

But what should be the difference between a college and a university? That is not easy to say. I shall only attempt to make a few comparisons, to encourage further debate on these issues.

There are several features of some universities in Hong Kong which do not match with the experience of attending universities in many other countries, and some of these features represent room for improvement here.

Our shortage of land for student accommodation has the unfortunate effect of obliging most local undergraduates to commute from the home to university each day. Thus a student's life can be rather like attending a daytime job.

Too few of them stay around for extra-curricular activities or join any university clubs or teams. That means they miss out on an important aspect of university life.

Furthermore, membership of the committees of such undergraduate or university-wide clubs, teams and the like can help build up organisational, social, leadership and influencing skills - none of which can happen if, after the university lectures finish for the day, they go straight home to watch TV with the family.

Learning to co-operate with others, with whom they might live on campus, is another loss.

It is an excellent thing to have a multinational range of students, as this can greatly enhance understanding and build up a stronger awareness of other cultures. But having most of the 'international' students coming from mainland China achieves little in these directions.

Having them from a range of countries would do far more to broaden the level of internationalism of our own local students - many of whom might hope to one day work in an international firm in Hong Kong or to work or study overseas.

The large numbers of undergraduates at some universities means that a so-called tutorial might have 30 or 40 students in it. This defeats the purpose, where a tutorial is seen as an opportunity for in-depth discussion of probing questions between a handful of students and the tutor.

That simply cannot happen when there are too many students in each session. Instead, it becomes just another type of lecture.

Let us not lose sight of the point that rarity adds perceived value to possessions, such as Gucci handbags or university degrees. In olden times, when the only way to get a Gucci item was to buy it in Italy, that rarity value added a certain cachet. Now that Gucci items can be bought in almost any shopping mall in any major city, some would say that Gucci has become less exclusive and thereby less desirable.

When only a limited and highly select proportion of the population had a university degree and when such degrees were not particularly easy to obtain, the possession of one was undoubtedly a feather in the cap. It made the graduate readily employable, even sought-after.

Now that most people can scrape a degree, somehow or other, can it really come as any surprise when potential employers often look askance at the holders of low-level degrees in easy subjects, obtained from an uninspiring and undistinguished mass-producer of graduates that some 'universities' have now become?

The solution to these problems is within the grasp of the universities themselves.

By maintaining high standards they can help boost the value of their degrees. By quietly dropping their standards they do themselves - and their graduates - no favours.

So by all means let us see HKIEd achieve university status. But let that include the firm requirement that it raises its game to provide the all-round university-level, mind-broadening, life-enhancing experience that a university education used to represent.

A simple change of status, in the name alone, will not suffice. The success of Hong Kong's future generations, who will be taught by their graduates, demands no less than such wide-ranging institutional enhancement.

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator.