Degrees of diversity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am


A year ago, I wrote in this column that 'as Hong Kong aspires to be a regional education hub, we should rethink the essence of university education and ask: what kind of excellence do we want to groom?'

At a recent presidents' summit convened by the University of Hong Kong, in celebration of its centenary, participating university leaders explored the future of universities. I co-chaired the panel discussion on 'Mass Education vs Elite Education' and it was astounding as to the level of concern expressed about the current dilemmas of universities in countries in both the East and West.

Is our university education now of a 'mass' or 'elite' nature? The world trend is certainly moving to a less elite and more mass higher education in terms of access. In Asia, South Korea has an admission rate of over 80 per cent while Taiwan even has more university places than needed. Hong Kong's publicly funded higher education system may still be of an elite nature, but the government's target rate of 60 per cent post-secondary enrolment has been more than met.

Mass higher education seems unavoidable because of the demands of a knowledge economy, the call for social mobility and the need to groom an educated citizenry. Getting into university has become a norm or basic right for young people. Even in more elite systems like the British and Australian ones, new universities have mushroomed over the past two decades.

In Hong Kong, fast-growing numbers of associate degree graduates now demand the opportunity to advance to degree education. Unable or unwilling to invest more in publicly funded places, the government expects private universities and colleges to fill the gap.

Yet, ironically, most stakeholders (the government, employers and parents) have continued to expect an elite type of higher education. The popularity of world-class university rankings in the wave of internationalisation has put pressure on many universities to compete according to criteria set by the 'best' research universities, which are well endowed with funding and academic legacies. They are expected to become 'elite' universities and rank high in international league tables.

This is an impossible mission, given the limited resources available. There is growing tension between expectations and reality.

People expect both mass higher education and elite universities at the same time, but the reality is one of uneven funding, low tuition fees, rising costs (especially due to increasing international competition for quality faculty) and rankings pressure.

As higher education has expanded, resources have concentrated more on elite comprehensive universities, making others even more disadvantaged within a steep national hierarchy of institutions. Private colleges, if insufficiently funded, will only provide a second-class higher education.

High costs and reduced public funding have driven universities to seek donations from big business and run profit-making programmes and consultancies, exposing them to criticism of becoming commercialised, as in Hong Kong recently. Here lies the great paradox of university education today.

Conventional wisdom would suggest either accepting the reality and going for the 'tiering' of universities into research universities, teaching universities and community colleges, as in the US, to rationalise the shifting of resources to research institutions; or, following some European models, maintaining open and even free access to mass universities but with highly restricted access to elite universities like the grandes ecoles in France.

There is no simple solution or quick fix. However, a fundamental rethink should focus on the range of universities each national or city system should cultivate.

Universities need not be all the same. They should not be driven to only one global research university model and evaluated according to an identical set of criteria and benchmarks. Each has its own history, character and special purpose - for example, the normal universities and agricultural universities on the mainland, and culture and arts universities elsewhere - and should excel at what it does best.

Diversity should be valued in higher education. Elite higher education should mean quality in the learning outcome - in nurturing the whole person and imparting wisdom to students, grooming them into creative social beings.

It does not need to be defined by those narrow criteria used for the international rankings game that is in effect homogenising higher education.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education