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HKU council controversy

University of Hong Kong council delays making decision to adopt or reject governance report

It set up working group to study recommendations instead, dealing blow to those calling for more institutional autonomy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 10:50am

Students, staff and alumni calling for more institutional autonomy for the University of Hong Kong have been dealt another blow after the school’s council held back on whether to adopt or reject, or even release, a long-awaited governance review report, and instead set up a working group to look into the recommendations.

The report, which according to sources included suggestions to strip the chief executive of powers to appoint the council chairman and members, was expected to be completed by the end of last year, but was circulated within the council only last week.

While there were expectations that the report would be released at a council meeting on Tuesday, the council, after a four-hour meeting, instead resolved to establish a working group that would be tasked to “propose the necessary policies, processes, arrangements, as well as the overseeing mechanism for their implementation”, according to a university spokeswoman.

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“[The group] will also look into those individual recommendations that require further study, including those on which there have been different views from [governance review] panel members for advice to the council.”

The working group will be chaired by Dr Brian Stevenson, with Professor Henry Chan, Professor Joseph Chan, Mrs Ayesha Lau, Dr Patrick Poon and Professor Rosie Young as members. All of them are also members of the council.

“The perspectives presented in the report and addendum are valuable and will help the university make informed decisions on its future governance. The advice from the panel members will also form a solid basis for facilitating the university’s realisation of its strategic visions, which are essential in its pursuit of excellence,” chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said.

Council members were tight-lipped about what was discussed at the meeting, with Althea Suen Hiu-lam, a student representative to the council, revealing only that the report was not discussed directly.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who is also a HKU alumnus, urged the council to release the report and consult stakeholders as soon as possible.

He pointed out that an ad hoc task group began a two-month consultation about a week after a governance and management report was submitted to the council by an independent review panel in 2003.

Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of the university’s academic staff association, believed Li and the council were keeping mum about the content of the report as the chief executive election would be held in late March.

“I think Arthur Li is being very smart here,” he said.

“One of the chief executive contenders, Carrie Lam [Cheng Yuet-ngor] has been [quiet] on whether she supports abolishing the automatic appointment of the chief executive as the chancellor of public universities, while another contender John Tsang [Chun-wah] has said he was open to talks. I think Li is playing it safe to wait until after the chief executive election.”

Right before the meeting began, Ed Wong Ching-tak, the newly elected students’ union president, along with student representatives from other universities, submitted a petition to the university registrar, Henry Wai Wing-kun, urging the council to accept recommendations made in the report.

The HKU council established the independent review panel in April last year amid intensifying debate over the governance structures of public universities.

Reform advocates point to the controversial decision by HKU’s council in 2015 to not promote liberal law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, who had close ties with colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, co-founder of the Occupy Central movement, to a key managerial post despite a search committee’s recommendation. They also highlighted the appointment of Li, a hardline former education minister, as council chairman by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

The HKU spokeswoman also said that the report was authored by two members of the three-person independent panel, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, chancellor of the University of York and Professor William Kirby, T.M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University, while the remaining member, former High Court judge Peter Van-tu Nguyen, submitted an addendum.

Sources previously said that Nguyen was against directly stripping the chief executive of their powers as a chancellor, and submitted a separate report proposing a system similar to that of the Chinese University council, in which members select candidates for the council chair post, which is then approved by the chancellor.

Even if the recommendations are accepted by the council, they would need to be passed by the HKU court, the chancellor and the Legislative Council.