THE SUTHERLAND REPORT and the prospect of serious spending cuts have resembled a gauntlet thrown down at Hong Kong's universities. The challenge is to compete for students and research and, most of all, funding. But fierce competition between institutions is tempered by another rising trend, also recommended in the report and the apparent antithesis of competition - collaboration. Collaboration between local and overseas institutions is nothing new. But this is now being matched by growing numbers of partnerships at home. The recent agreement between the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) to collaborate on science teacher education is just one example. HKUST offers speciality subject content (chemistry, information technology, physics) while the HKIEd takes care of teacher education (assessment, methodology, management). Many academics believe that this kind of partnership is the way forward in reaching for high quality tertiary education. And with no long-term commitments involved, it involves far less risk than the alternative of marriage, or merger, and is more cost effective. Professor John Spinks, pro-vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), sums up the situation: 'The current balance between universities in Hong Kong creates competition, and competition drives quality. But we have to foster more collaboration between universities to guarantee quality.' The University Grants Committee's reviews of higher education, last year and in 1996, emphasised the importance of collaboration. 'Strategic collaborations will be an essential part of shaping the future,' says the Sutherland Report. However, academics have differing views on the extent to which they are possible. The heads of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and HKUST still favour a merger. Just last week HKUST president Paul Chu Ching-wu and council chairman John Chan wrote to staff urging them to continue to consider the merger option, even though the vast majority of academics there have rejected the idea. Education Secretary Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung had reminded them that the higher education budget would be severely cut and that the government was likely only to be able to support the development of, at most, two comprehensive research universities that are capable of competing at the highest international level. In light of that, the management was giving 'substantial consideration' to the merger option. Meanwhile, the cause of collaboration is proceeding less controversially. Vice-president for academic affairs at City University of Hong Kong (CityU) David Tong Shuk-yin has expressed strong support for more inter-university partnerships in teaching and research. 'I am not opposed to mergers in principle,' he said, 'but I am more than happy to pursue extensive and continued collaborations with other universities in Hong Kong.' Professor Tong said that the future of higher education depended on building up and maintaining co-operative research and teaching as a means of managing resources more efficiently, and saving money. 'If the goal is to cultivate the quantity and quality of research and teaching, then, keeping in mind the government's feelings about creating a world-class university, collaborations offer an efficient use of resources,' he said. Collaborations had the advantage of flexibility. 'Collaborations are fluid and formed relatively easily, and have an end date. A merger is for life,' he said. He added it would be difficult for institutions to 'demerge' if plans went askew. A fund set up by the UGC in response to the 1996 review on higher education in Hong Kong has provided the impetus for several inter-university research projects. Established in 1998, the Area of Excellence (AoE) award aims to help Hong Kong retain 'its leading economic position in the development of China and the Pacific Rim', according to the UGC. Out of the ten AoE projects shortlisted in the third round of funding this year, nine were collaborations. One, an investigation into marine environmental research, involves six of Hong Kong's eight universities. These collaborations have potential to develop groundbreaking technology. In January, a team of engineers, physicists and other scientists from CityU, HKU, and HKUST led by Professor Tong was awarded $4 million through AoE for a nanotechnology project. While CityU could have conducted the investigation alone, the project was likely to succeed faster and with more efficient use of resources with the participation of others, he said. The HKIEd-HKUST agreement illustrates how partnerships can work at undergraduate teaching level. Anna Kindler, the HKIEd's dean of the school of creative arts, sciences and technology, said that Hong Kong needed to take a serious look at models that offered collaboration but that did not necessitate major restructuring of existing institutions. 'The beauty of the HKIEd-HKUST agreement is that we are not competing,' she said. 'It is truly collaborative. There is no competition for resources.' The HKIEd's president Paul Morris favours such links and has said he will look for others to complement its expertise. Reflecting on this model, Professor Tong said he would be more than happy to see greater co-ordination in terms of courses at upper undergraduate as well as postgraduate levels. 'There would of course be problems at first,' he said. 'Standardisation and grading between two different institutions would have to be resolved.' But he added that the benefits of extensive collaboration outweighed the problems that might appear through merging. However, local collaboration is neither required nor favoured by all institutions. Professor Mark Bray, dean of the Faculty of Education at HKU, said that while he had no objection to the idea of collaborative projects, HKU could normally rely on its internal networks. 'We're a multifaceted university,' he said. Whereas HKIEd-HKUST model drew on mutual strengths, HKU could exploit resources within the home institution, especially in the area of teacher education for science teachers, he said. One academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said that collaboration was not necessarily a positive step, and that certain groups were propping up weaker ones which would otherwise not survive. 'Smaller institutions should close programmes if they are not viable,' he said. 'It is only prestige and ego that is keeping them open.' Meanwhile, some academics believe that Hong Kong institutions should focus on international collaborations. 'The pool of researchers is small in Hong Kong,' said Professor Gordon Cheung Wai-hung, associate dean of CUHK's Faculty of Business Administration. 'You may not find the right partner locally for the specific topic that you're working on.' Another highly placed academic said a lot of research carried out by Hong Kong's universities was wasteful. 'There is a great deal of replication. The UGC acts as a safeguard to monitor that, but many academics are competing with colleagues at other universities to achieve very similar goals. Often this is a waste of resources.' As Hong Kong's universities look to increase their local links, overseas institutions are facing a similar trend. In launching Britain's review of higher education in January, Education Secretary Charles Clarke stressed it was essential to achieving research excellence. In Canada, the 1996 MacKay Report reached conclusions relevant to Hong Kong. 'Although it is clear that some useful collaboration is taking place,' it said, 'there remain many opportunities for improved communications and joint action which would better use the province's resources and enhance the programmes and services made available to the students.'