Humanities will 'lose out' in new funding regime

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 November, 2010, 12:00am

Arts and humanities academics fear changes to the way university funds are allocated could see their disciplines lose out as yet greater emphasis is placed on science and medicine.

The changes are planned for the 2012-13 academic year and will see HK$750 million per year taken out of a total block grant of HK$10.8 billion for the city's eight publicly-funded universities.

At present, each university receives a fixed block grant for their operational costs, and has total discretion in deciding how the grant is allocated between faculties.

The HK$750 million in funding taken out will be put into a central bidding pool and the Research Grants Council will decide on the final allocation.

The dean of the Faculty of Arts at Baptist University, Professor Chung Ling, said the proposed change would weaken universities that thrived on the arts.

'It's totally unreasonable. A big chunk of money that we use to pay for overhead costs like staff salaries and utilities would be withdrawn. It's reasonable for universities to bid for grants to conduct research due to scarcity of resources. But the block grant is mostly used to sustain the operations of a university.

'Arts and humanities disciplines will lose out, as science and medical subjects have concrete research outputs that give them an edge in the bidding process,' she said.

The Research Grants Council (RGC) set aside HK$324 million in general research funds in the last academic year for bidding by the city's eight institutions.

Arts and humanities projects have the lowest bidding success rate. Physical sciences came first with 57.3 per cent or 160 out of the 279 applications securing grants.

Second came business projects, with 91 out of 256 applications succeeding. At the bottom was the arts and humanities, with 26.5 per cent or 57 out of 215 applications getting the green light.

The proposed funding change came on the heels of another new funding scheme, which was amended after vehement opposition.

Under that scheme, up to 8 per cent of first-year arts-degree student places would have been put up for competitive bidding among all tertiary institutions. It prompted the most strident complaints from arts and humanities departments worried that they would be phased out due to their lower bidding power.

'Among all the universities, only we have an anthropology department,' said Chinese University arts dean Professor Hsiung Ping-chen. 'We only have around 20 students now; taking away several of our places will have a big impact on us.''

According to figures from the University Grants Committee (UGC), there was a 25.5 per cent drop in first-year student enrolment in the arts and humanities from 3,729 in 1999 to 2,791 last year.

Arts deans and university researchers have long lamented that even before changes in how government funds are allocated, there has been a decline in institutional support to arts and humanities subjects.

A case in point was the launch of the area-of-excellence scheme by the UGC in 1998, which academics said favoured scientists and medical researchers.

Professor Kam Louie, arts dean at the University of Hong Kong, said some research funding open for bidding was not available to arts and humanities researchers.

'Croucher fellowships, which give out quite a lot of money, are just for science people,' he said.

Launched in 1996, the Croucher fellowship offers full financial support for senior researchers to devote a year to full-time research and get a break from teaching and administrative responsibilities.

'Humanities researchers don't need laboratories or a big team of research assistants. What they need most is time. It's ironic that this fellowship is not available to those who need it most,' Louie said.

The General Research Fund under the RGC does allow researchers to bid for projects.

Gordon Mathews, an anthropology professor at Chinese University, said waning institutional support for the arts was not conducive to the morale of its academics.

Mathews said the standing of an academic in Hong Kong was mostly measured by the number of papers published and grants secured.

'I might take five years to write a book. But I might have to set it aside and write more papers, with lesser scope, to satisfy the system. I love my students enormously, but I am frustrated by the overall management of universities and the shortsightedness of the UGC.'

A UGC spokesman said: 'There is general consensus among institutions that the system should change, and genuine competition will help to ensure effective allocation of research resources.'

Tough sell

Arts and humanities grant applications have the worst success rate, at: 26.5%