When Hong Kong upgraded its technical colleges to universities in the early '90s, it proved to be a watershed moment on this city's higher education scene.
Before then, Hong Kong had only two universities - the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University - which had enough spots for only about 2 per cent of students. No wonder university was mostly a dream for teenagers. Females, especially, were resigned to factory jobs in their teens. Even the idea of getting a degree was seen by their parents to be pointless, an option best left for boys.
But times have changed. The growth of universities has opened the door for thousands of academically driven students. Annually, about 15,000 first-year degree places are offered by the eight government-funded institutions.
Unlike the past, when a university education was reserved for few, it is now a common aspiration for most young people.
Thousands more head overseas for degrees each year. The growth of associate degree programmes since 2000 has further fuelled the aspiration. The expansion of this sector has been accompanied by a proliferation of professional disciplines, from design, nursing, creative media, hospitality and hotel management to IT. The list goes on.
As much as societies have benefited from professional education, there is a need, however, to question the purpose of university education.
More precisely, what constitutes "scholarism" or "intellectualism"? Scholars are not necessarily intellectuals, defined by the late leading American cultural critic Edward Said as people who "speak the truth to power", who "question patriotic nationalism, corporate thinking, and a sense of class, racial or gender privilege". Intellectuals need not be scholars either. Still, we can reasonably expect universities, which were once regarded as ivory towers but have for the past two decades been increasingly open to the community, to be a breeding ground for influential thinkers.
In Hong Kong, the increase in the university student population is certainly a welcoming trend, enhancing the quality of workforce and cultivating civic qualities. But have we produced more intellectual figures with moral and cultural authority? Despite rising overall educational standard, there remains a dearth of role models in this city who can inspire the masses on various social and political issues. Two refreshing exceptions lately are Benny Tai, the law professor from the University of Hong Kong, and Chan Kin-man, a social scientist from Chinese University - both key architects of the Occupy Central movement that seeks to galvanise public debate on universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Not everyone supports their cause, but they live up to the expectation of intellectuals in Said's view.
Said described the ideal intellectual as being driven by care and affection, rather than profit and selfish, narrow specialisation. His ideas were cited by acclaimed professor Leo Lee Ou-fan at a talk entitled "The Role of Scholars in an Age of Globalisation" held under Chinese University lecture series in arts and humanities late last year. Lee voiced concern about whether universities are nurturing true intellectuals while being consumed by the rankings game.
Social responsibility aside, from an economic perspective, it is not enough to create "technocrats" or graduates with professional skills alone. What drives innovation is the ability to think independently, alongside a strong intellectual atmosphere backed by educational institutions that nurture reflective, responsible individuals. Taiwan is well ahead of Hong Kong in this regard. With more than 100 universities, it has been criticised for churning out more graduates than available jobs. And yes, its economy is currently in the doldrums. Yet the island has continued to draw tourists lured by its unique culture that isn't dependent on commercialism. Many credit that to the island's thriving creative industry.
By comparison, Hong Kong's creative scene looks underwhelming. The local films shown during the Lunar New Year holidays, for example, mostly glamorised gambling and prostitution. This hardly reflects a society with an inspiring culture.