HK Institute of Education pushing to be named a fully fledged university

Marking its 20th year, the HKIEd has come a long way from its teacher-training roots, and is pushing to be named a fully fledged university, writes Linda Yeung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 8:05pm

For the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, about 200 of its students sang lines from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals at a gala concert last week replete with choreographed sequences and performances by the school's artists in residence.

To those who know the HKIEd only as a teacher-training college, the scenes might have been surprising. But it underlines the rapidly evolving nature of the institute. For one, HKIEd now boasts a cultural and creative arts department (launched in 2011 as part of moves to make it a multidisciplinary school), whose students led the charge at the concert.

I had diverse learning experiences … I feel at home at the institute

And this month, the institute's first batch of doctoral students graduated.

This would have been unthinkable more than a decade ago. In the late 2000s, the government asked the institute to diversify its programmes as a condition for gaining a university title - a long-held goal.

Apart from cultural and creative arts, HKIEd launched music education programmes, language studies as well as global and environmental studies - the latter two of which have just produced their first graduates.

The recent gala concert's director, Bobo Lo Po-yan, is a doctoral candidate in the creative arts department. She gained her undergraduate degree from HKIEd in 2008, pursued her master's at Chinese University and then returned to the institute for her PhD.

"I had diverse learning experiences during my undergraduate years there, like directing school choirs in Tai Po, coaching students and getting involved in various musicals," Lo says. "I feel at home at the institute."

The initiatives are part of the push for a coveted university title - a name change that will have to be approved by the Executive Council - and the goal seems not too far off. It may even happen early in the tenure of HKIEd president Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, who began a five-year term in September.

The institute plans to apply for a name change with the University Grants Committee (UGC) next year, after a scheduled visit by the Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications next April to revalidate its new humanities and social sciences departments, according to associate vice-president Professor Joshua Mok Ka-ho.

The grants committee must set up a panel to conduct an institutional review before approving or rejecting the application. Exco will have the final word.

Mok, who joined in 2010 as founding dean of the social sciences faculty, is optimistic the review will be successful, citing HKIEd's diversified learning environment, improved research output and performance.

For example, the institute had the second-highest number of projects awarded funding by the Research Grants Council under its latest Early Career Scheme allocation, intended for young academics. University of Hong Kong was No 1.

Mok also cited the institute's international connections and its pioneering greater China study programme - an area believed to have much research potential.

"In April [this year], we also set up an inter-university platform with top institutions, including Peking University, Zhejiang University and National Taiwan University for comparative social policy research in China," Mok says.

"I think HKIEd will be renamed in the reasonably near future. Our new president would like to see this task completed within his term. We have created a more multidisciplinary environment, our students have much wider choices of electives and minors such as greater China studies, web and technology. The course menu is broadened," he says.

Formally established in 1994 through the merger of four teacher-training colleges, HKIEd moved to its present location - a picturesque campus in Tai Po - in 1997.

It initially offered certificate-level teacher training and in-service training courses. In 2004, it was given self-accrediting status, allowing it to confer degrees on education majors.

Teacher training remains its core business, but since 2010, it has branched into social sciences and humanities programmes, which are attracting much interest. Its latest graduates are working in various professions beyond teaching.

This year, its psychology programme attracted 10,000 applications, while its global and environmental studies programme - with 30 places - received 8,000 applications.

Part of the attraction is that the courses provide exposure outside the city through regional summer institutes, along with eight-week internships at non-governmental organisations, media companies, political parties and corporations such as Cathay Pacific, where students can push for corporate social responsibility.

"All these experiences enhance students' confidence," Mok says. But he acknowledges that HKIEd is not a first choice for many students: "We may not attract top students. But education is about adding value."

He believes the university title can bolster the institute's appeal. "It represents a form of recognition. We are operating as a university now, without the title. The title is important in Asia, where parents and students look for institutions with [a good name], which they associate with better quality.

Mok says that many leading educational institutions in Europe and America are well-respected despite not being named as universities - but "Asian parents and students do not have the same attitudes".

"Having the university title would encourage more high-quality students in Hong Kong and from the region to enrol in our programmes," he says.

To attract more high-calibre talent, HKIEd is offering each student in its UGC-funded programmes a HK$10,000 coupon for international exchanges or short-term overseas visits. Overseas learning experience is important for nurturing caring professionals in various fields, not just teaching, Mok believes.

The institute has also stepped up recruitment of top academics, and is due to announce the names of the latest recruits from Hong Kong and abroad in a few months, he adds.

Quality faculty is indispensable for any good university, but equally important is the students' overall learning experience.

"I am a chair professor and I still give tutorials and lectures. That is an important signal that we care about teaching and learning," says Mok.