The news that tycoon Li Ka-shing has pledged a whopping HK$2 billion to Shantou University in Guangdong has made headlines. It is only three years ago that he made his extraordinary donation of HK$1 billion to the University of Hong Kong. His hyper-wealthy peers have also been matching his largesse, with impressive donations in Hong Kong and over the border.
A culture of big-budget philanthropy is taking root. But this should not disguise the fact that private support for our schools and tertiary institutions still lags significantly behind government funding and cannot compare to the multibillion-dollar endowments that fund some of the world's leading universities. And the downturn that our economy is certain to face because of the financial crisis; donations to this and other causes are bound to slow down as well. There is a need for the government and public institutions to come up with creative ways to encourage philanthropy and build on the momentum generated by the tycoons.
Last year, Lee Shau-kee of Henderson Land donated HK$500 million to the University of Hong Kong for scholarships and campus development, shortly after giving HK$400 million to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In 2005, the late Henry Fok Ying-tung - who had a long history of making big donations on the mainland - also gave HK$800 million to HKUST.
Since 2003, the government has made matching grants for large private donations to universities. These have generated about HK$9 billion in extra funding. The system has been a successful way to leverage contributions from the private sector. Raising the cap on the matching grants may encourage wealthy individuals to make more donations in the knowledge they are helping universities raise more than they give. The University of Hong Kong - which in January broke into the ranks of the world's top 20 universities but recently sought more funding for research after slipping eight places - has been successful in building up a generous alumni network. Other institutions need to follow its example. Hongkongers are generous, but we need a philanthropic culture to leverage their generosity.