Whenever the Hong Kong government plans to change university funding, unease ripples through the ranks of arts and humanities academics. They have good reason to worry. As with elsewhere in the world - and perhaps more so here - their disciplines are given short shrift next to those of science and business. With authorities so focused on policies that have economic benefits, it is natural to fear that any new approach will mean less for the arts. Officials have to ensure that the latest shift in allocations means that this is not the case because arts and humanities subjects are essential to creating well-rounded students. They raise questions about life, and help the search for answers and meaning. Through them there is a direct link to human experience. They teach broad thinking.
Deepening understanding of oneself and the world would not appear to be one of the government's top priorities with its funding plans for the 2012-13 academic year. It is carving HK$750 million from the HK$10.8 billion allocation for the eight publicly-funded universities and putting it into a pool for the Research Grants Council to hand out. The organisation has a firm track record of favouring bids for the physical sciences. With less general funding available, the heads of arts and humanities programmes worry that there will be fewer resources available for staff and operating costs.
History, literature, languages and philosophy are not subjects guaranteed to turn out graduates who can easily find jobs in Hong Kong. Nor do they directly contribute to the business, medical, science or technology sectors. But they nonetheless richly broaden the fabric of our society.
Just because research in the arts and humanities seems to produce fewer tangible benefits, the government should not draw a line between them and other fields of university endeavour. Ideas, knowledge and the spirit of inquiry - all of which are cultivated in the study of humanities - bring great wealth to a society. As the government goes through this change of policy it should ensure an equal value is placed on all areas of study.