Every so often, concerns about the declining international ranking of Hong Kong's institutions of higher learning make the headlines. Recently, the University of Hong Kong's appointment of an expatriate vice chancellor fanned the debate. Vitriolic yet fundamentally trivial (like most academic catfights), such ivory tower teapot tempests nevertheless shine light on aspects of the local education system that its main beneficiaries - handsomely compensated academic staff - could perhaps do without.
The global corporatisation of higher education in recent years has been, on the whole, disastrous for the cause of knowledge for its own sake. Academic exercises designed to further individual career or departmental objectives often predominate. Hong Kong is no exception to this sorry trend; the feverish pursuit of international "rankings", and the funding and institutional "prestige" that come with it, has usually been at the expense of quality teaching and research that leads to meaningful contributions to human knowledge.
This city's academic standards were never really quite what they are sometimes remembered as. Once upon a time, its secondary schools and HKU (until 1962 its only university) did attract significant numbers of international students, mainly from Southeast Asia. In the 1930s, however, HKU was described as a "finishing school and teacher training college of sorts" and - with the exception of its excellent medical school - it remained so for decades. Personal experience bears this out. In the mid-90s, I read history as a self-funding, undergraduate, local student entrant at HKU; there were, at that time, almost no mainland or "overseas" undergraduate students. It was a fascinating experience on many levels and one that I do not regret. But …
In my three years at HKU, barely a single seminar or tutorial was anything other than a waste of everyone's time due to the inadequate English language abilities of my fellow students; less than 50 per cent of my classmates, it was plainly obvious, could follow more than 50 per cent of their lectures. Exams were rote-learned - the prizes went to those with the best memories or most developed question-spotting techniques. Essays and assignments were heavily cribbed and plagiarised, but few academics, to my observation, made much fuss over this - there wasn't much point swimming against an overwhelming tide. And all this in a serious subject area at Hong Kong's premier institution of higher learning; not a gender studies, literary criticism or cultural theory course hammered out at one of the city's polytechnics - all of which were hastily rebranded in the 90s.
Most tellingly, none of my lecturers (of any ethnicity) put their own children anywhere near the Hong Kong education system, from kindergarten onwards, least of all at the university at which they themselves taught.
Attempts over the past decade to "internationalise" local campuses by filling them with (let's be blunt) more white faces and moves towards enhanced mainlandisation have achieved mixed results. Both student groups form a large enough critical mass to form their own English- or Putonghua-speaking microcommunities. In turn, this means that Hong Kong Chinese students derive little genuine benefit - either from enhanced language exposure or other potentially broadening influences.
Ultimately, though, that's not what having "international" students at local universities is all about, it seems. Their presence helps play into various "cosmopolitan, Asia's World City" PR agendas (however fundamentally bogus those are) and enables closer access to perceived present or future mainland power centres.