Chief executive must defend academic freedom in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 10:01pm

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s incoming administration will have many pressing issues to deal with, but there is one that deserves careful attention – the academic freedom of our universities.

Many remember the ham-fisted attempt by local politicians to control the governance of these institutions. This impulse comes from a political paranoia about civil freedoms.

Over-centralised governments want to dominate education, the media and religious organisations, since these agents are influential in seeking new knowledge, and informing and guiding the public. For these governments, the word “control” is sacred, whereas the word “freedom” is anathema.

They want universities, for example, to be very progressive in science, since advanced science and technology can help to produce superior weapons. In the US, for example, many universities receive grants from the Pentagon for research related to war. But areas like philosophy, ethics, religion and peace efforts are sadly underfunded and severely monitored. Valuable research that could help humanity fight disease and war receive no support. Civic organisations, religious communities and NGOs are under suspicion.

Since higher education is expensive, many universities receive donations from corporations, but these donors are usually more concerned about their reputation, the bottom line and the next shareholders’ meeting than about the search for truth, human progress or political reform.

Some will say that whoever pays the piper can call the tune, implying that officialdom which spends taxpayers’ money has the right to determine the functions and rights of scholars.

However, very few businessmen or political parties, especially non-elected ones, have the wisdom, experience, ethical competence or popular mandate to govern a university.

Academic freedom is important for society and for humanity’s progress, but it is obviously not absolute. Each university should be monitored and critiqued by its members, by society and by independent rating agencies. Taxpayers have a part to play in preventing the wasting of funds, but this should be done in a non-partisan, non-political way.

Hong Kong’s educational system, while not perfect, is the envy of many cities and countries. Its universities need freedom to stay first class and they deserve taxpayers’ and official support.

Our future administrators must uphold the time-honoured, valued autonomy of our fine educational bodies and firmly resist any misguided outside attempts to undermine or destroy it.

J. Geitner, Sham Shui Po