Hong Kong's universities must innovate or fall behind

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 October, 2013, 12:10am

Higher education is a competitive business, for students, university leaders and governments. It is especially so now that so much importance is given to annual global rankings that compare and contrast institutions on a range of criteria. Hong Kong has not fared as well as might be expected on one of the most respected lists. Our leading university has fallen to fourth in Asia and another dropped from the top 200 in the world. Given the gains of counterparts on the mainland and elsewhere in the region, it is not in our interests to fall behind rivals.

It is all about wanting the best for Hong Kong. Leading universities attract top students who, should they stay after graduating, can help drive the economy and improve lives. Our leading universities have long dominated regional rankings but are now facing stiff competition, as shown by the annual survey by Times Higher Education magazine. The list released on Tuesday placed our most prestigious institution, the University of Hong Kong, down eight places globally to 43rd and a position lower in Asia behind competitors from Singapore, Japan and Australia. While the University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Chinese University improved their standings, City University fell from the top 200.

Having so many highly placed universities is a considerable achievement for a single city. That the University of Hong Kong outshines its top mainland rivals, Peking and Tsinghua universities, has long been a matter of pride; it is the reason many of the nation's brightest students go there. But when it comes to the rankings list, the saying that pride comes before a fall holds true. Not keeping up with the times has meant that the competition is fast catching up and even passing by.

Universities have to be constantly innovating; in so competitive an environment, they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. HKUST's president Tony Chan Fan-cheong made that plain recently, warning that they needed to fight for more funding and support from business to stay ahead. Attracting top scholars and having the best facilities for learning and research is not good enough. The government can help by offering incentives, but the business and commercial sectors also have a significant role. These, and other ideas, should be considered by authorities and the University of Hong Kong's new vice chancellor, Professor Peter Mathieson, and other higher education leaders to ensure we do not fall behind.