One rule won't fit all
With the four-year university education system just round the corner, the University Grants Committee's proposed funding scheme - to be introduced in 2012 - appears to be flawed.
The scheme has two parts. Under the first one, 7.5 per cent of funding to local universities is to be taken away and put into a central pool. Universities can get the funds back (and perhaps more) if their newly proposed academic programmes win the hearts and minds of UGC bureaucrats. The downside is that universities will only propose popular courses - such as tourism and cultural-facility management - that ensure an intake of students. Universities won't consider programmes that provide medium- and long-term benefits to Hong Kong.
In short, the new academic programmes will be very market-oriented. What about philosophy and literature courses? Well, I am not too optimistic that they will be approved.
Some citizens and bureaucrats may ask what is wrong with having more market-oriented courses like business management and derivatives trading. But educators should be more far-sighted. They should consider what will be good for Hong Kong in 10 to 20 years' time, to help it maintain its viability.
The second part of the funding scheme shows UGC's sloppiness in pushing a 'one policy for all' approach. Funding will be divided into two parts: 77 per cent for teaching and 23 per cent for research. Departments that do not produce adequate research papers will, in the worst-case scenario, lose 23 per cent of their funding. The result could be one-quarter of a teaching staff being laid off.
No academic or teaching staff would argue openly that they don't need to do research, as research improves their teaching quality and benefits students. But this across-the-board approach appears to have forgotten the history and different roles of local universities. The University of Hong Kong, Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology are regarded as research universities. Polytechnic University and City University focus on more practical subjects (as they formerly were polytechnics) while Lingnan University and Hong Kong Baptist University emphasise liberal arts education and whole-person development. The Institute of Education, which is not a university yet, trains people to become teachers.
Openly, all universities want to be research universities, and don't want to admit that they are, say, a teaching-oriented university. But in practice, some are not well equipped for research, and they will need time to transform themselves into research-oriented, higher-education institutions. This 'one policy for all' approach needs to be revised.
The UGC may consider two ways to improve the new funding system. One is to allow different academic departments to submit reports arguing that they are not research-oriented, and that the 23 per cent portion should be reduced to 10-15 per cent, so they won't be hurt so much when the axe falls in 2012. Programmes such as creative media, visual arts, filmmaking and journalism aim to produce professionals to work in various industries, not researchers. And some faculty members are experienced industry people who don't join universities to do research.
I know this might mean more work for UGC bureaucrats. But this flexible approach would serve Hong Kong better.
The other improvement in the new system would be to relax the definition of research. It's not difficult for a science professor to publish an article in an academic journal. But a teacher may publish a book on English learning, Chinese poetry or a textbook on news writing, etc., and such work don't count as research. The UGC should form a panel to consider counting as research publications other than those printed in academic journals. Again, this would mean more work for the UGC.
The question is: if the system is flawed, why not improve it before it is too late?
Victor Fung Keung is a Hong Kong-based commentator on education and political issues