On course for better standards
AN interim review on the development of local higher education from 1991 to 2001 was completed last year by the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee (UPGC), the most high-powered advisory body to the Hong Kong Government on the developmental and funding needs of higher education. The report of this study was published for public consultation in March after it was endorsed by the Executive Council.
This interim report, which provides a basis for discussion on the direction of local higher education into the next century, examines expansion from 1991 to 1995 and development from 1995 to 2001. Reference is made specifically to the work required for 1995-98, and, to a much lesser extent, to continuing education currently provided by the UPGC-funded and other institutions.
The review has broken fresh ground in developmental planning for tertiary education in that the UPGC has highlighted for the first time the role of UPGC-funded institutions in the context of Hong Kong's hinterland in connection with the transfer of sovereignty over the territory to China in 1997.
With only three years to go before this political transition ends, this seems to have been a belated effort to address the issue even though funds ($4 million for 1994-95) have been earmarked since the 80s for supporting academic exchange activities between institutions in Hong Kong and China.
To higher education personnel, the issue of focus in the report seems to be the proposed creation of centres of academic excellence in the institutions as one of the three possible scenarios of the role of the institutions in the run-up to 1997 and beyond.
This is the option preferred by the UPGC to either a status-quo where the tertiary bodies would tailor their operations to local student recruitment and the local labour market or the scenario in which the institutions would confine their interests to local recruitment and the local labour market, but with a positive stand on bilingualism.
Under the preferred scenario, the institutions should, without a definite timetable, start to identify areas of prominent achievements and academically high standards for development into excellent groups which will be considered on a par with their global peers in the same subject area. This is seen by the UPGC as the way for Hong Kong to retain a leading position in the rapidly-advancing commercial and industrial development of China and the Pacific rim.
The UPGC envisages that internationally recognised centres of excellence have catalytic effects in an institution far beyond the disciplines directly involved. They inspire liveliness and confidence in teaching and research and in overseas contacts, which will help secure the sophisticated high-quality bilingual manpower for both Hong Kong and the neighbouring province. They should also act as points of reference, particularly in business and social studies and in innovative science and technology for developments in and outside Southern China.
The UPGC proposal deserves support to the extent that it promotes and enhances excellence in teaching, research and technology transfer in local tertiary institutions. However, while there is currency in the UPGC's underlying rationale that resources ought to go into areas of better worth, these centres should not sacrifice subjects and disciplines of minority interests not readily identified as capable of high scholarly excellence.
Recent allegations in the local institutions have already been held, rightly or wrongly, by some as signs of strain in the rapidly moving and increasingly competitive tertiary sector. Competition is good but fierce and cut-throat contests may prove otherwise. The motivation to become a centre of excellence, particularly on the eve of the advent of a new funding approach for higher education based on output and performance, may heighten the feelings of those concerned.
Perhaps the UPGC should drive home more vigorously that there are many possibilities in this proposed move towards excellent quality in institutions, and that developments in this direction will be supported by additional resources from the Government without necessarily entailing cutbacks in existing activities, both in the tertiary institutes or the school sector.
The academic community should be assured that, with the UPGC and the institutions working in close collaboration, the future of local higher education will continue to maintain a balance between research and teaching.