HKU council controversy

Universities need autonomy and freedom of speech, says Oxford’s vice-chancellor

Critics have called for the city’s chief executive to no longer be automatically appointed as the chancellor of all public institutions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 11:31pm

All universities need autonomy and freedom, the chief of a prestigious British institution has said, as debate continues over the governance of Hong Kong’s universities.

Speaking to the Post during a recent trip to Hong Kong, Professor Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, said the world’s best universities were those with the most autonomy.

Citing her university as an example, Richardson said although Oxford is heavily regulated by the British government – which sets fees and measures the quality of the institution’s operations – it does not face infringement from political figures.

For example, Oxford’s chancellor, Chris Patten – a senior figure in the UK’s Conservative Party, a former Hong Kong governor and now a member of the House of Lords – only serves as a ceremonial head, she said. That means he does not get to appoint council members.

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While Oxford is a public university, only 15 per cent of its income comes from the government, compared with the University of Hong Kong (HKU), which receives almost 60 per cent.

Richardson’s comments come at a time of intensifying debate over the governance structures of Hong Kong’s public universities.

Richardson was commenting on university governance in ­general, and did not wish to talk about the situation in Hong Kong specifically.

Critics have called for Hong Kong’s chief executive to no longer be automatically appointed as the chancellor of all local public universities. Under the arrangement, the city’s leader appoints members of the institutions’ governing council – a system that has been criticised for causing political infringement.

It is widely believed that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appointed Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, a hardline former education minister, as council chairman of HKU to wield his political influence.

Hong Kong’s universities began reviewing their governance structure last year after a grants committee found the chief executive’s power to appoint council members and the institutions’ lack of control over selecting their own governors may have “potential consequences”.

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I see my responsibility as head of the institution to defend freedom of speech
Professor Louise Richardson

Earlier this year, it was also revealed that a HKU governance report – not made public – suggested stripping the chief executive of his or her powers to appoint the council chairman and members.

Expanding on the issue of university autonomy, Richardson said it was vital for institutions to have freedom of speech on campus.

“Sometimes it is students who do not want to allow views they find objectionable to be heard on campus, sometimes it is the government that does not want to hear the expression of extreme views on campus. I see my responsibility as head of the institution to defend freedom of speech,” she said.

Richardson said universities should welcome all types of legal speeches because campuses are where such views can be openly challenged.

“We as teachers have an obligation to model to our students how to react to views they find objectionable,” she said.

As the pro-independence movement gained momentum in Hong Kong last year, at least three universities came out opposing the idea of separating the city from the mainland. While they highlighted their commitment to freedom of speech, some cited points in the Basic Law that stipulates that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.

Richardson, who was formerly the vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, said in the lead-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the government favoured one position very strongly but the community was deeply divided.

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“We as an institution [St Andrews] did not take a decision, but said we welcomed the expression of every point of view and invited leaders of different points of view to the university to express those views,” she said.

But the case of the Brexit referendum was slightly different, she noted, because it had a direct impact on the university.

Richardson said Oxford’s university council did issue a statement, saying it believed the interest of the school would be best protected if Britain were to remain in the European Union. But it also stressed that everybody was free to hold his or her own opinion so as to not confine students’ points of view, she added.