Great universities don't depend on academic strength alone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am

The University Grants Committee and the South China Morning Post should not get too anxious about the number of non-academic employees in Hong Kong's publicly funded universities ('University staff ratios worse than in UK and US', December 28).

I began working at Monash University in Australia in 1987.

I came to work in Hong Kong in late 1991, at City University, and returned to full-time university life at Monash in 1999.

I discovered that the 'modern management methods' described in your report had been widely deployed in Australian universities right through the 1990s.

Support staff had been cut to the bone - ostensibly to lift efficiency and spend resources where they were needed.

The results were dire: basically academic staff ended up doing much of the support-staff work far less efficiently.

To deal with the haphazard administrative skills of academics, universities across Australia have since found it necessary to hire hosts of new, centralised 'monitoring' bureaucrats.

This story is replicated across the entire public university sector in Australia. The commentary on this topic is regular and depressing from academics across the continent. The situation is worse today than ever.

Australia is not the US or Britain of course, but the concerns expressed by the UGC are of the same ilk as those that drove the 1990s reforms in the Australian university sector.

Australia now has probably the worst managed universities in the developed world. That they remain so well respected is down to the often superb work of academic staff - and students - despite the management malaise.

This management mess was one of the reasons I opted for early retirement in 2006 and moved back to work in Hong Kong, this time at the University of Hong Kong.

What my comparative experience has told me is that, overall, we get excellent performances from our support staff in the university sector in Hong Kong - I have yet to see greater application and higher skills anywhere else in the world. These staff have been immensely important in making universities in Hong Kong such a comparative success story.

I do not doubt that improvements are possible, but my own direct experience over many years tells me that there is nothing fundamentally wrong here. Raw-figure comparisons with Britain and the US (and how are they each doing today?) are a poor basis for planning any sort of root-and-branch reform of university management in Hong Kong.

Richard Cullen, visiting professor, faculty of law, HKU