Body accused of failing to live up to designated role as independent buffer between government and tertiary institutions The University Grants Committee was this week accused of being secretive and failing to live up to its role as an independent buffer between the government and tertiary institutions. Legislators and educators questioned its role at this week's Legislative Council education panel meeting, when 27 university and educational bodies hit out at its latest university funding proposal, drawn up for the Education and Manpower Bureau. This involves a 33 per cent funding cut for the Hong Kong Institute of Education and a 5 per cent reduction for the UGC-funded sector in 2007. Strong opposition from the groups and legislators forced the government to delay its plan to seek Legco's funding approval. Legislator and president of the Professional Teachers' Union Cheung Man-kwong said: 'The UGC is toeing the government line rather than being independent. It is operating in a 'black box'. 'It would be most cost effective to abolish it and let institutions deal directly with the government instead.' He rejected the UGC's policy of cutting funding by up to 10 per cent for any institution performing poorly or straying from its stipulated role as a 'political tool' to control institutions. Also causing concern is the fact that it was Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung who defended the budget plan in Legco, flanked by UGC secretary-general Michael Stone. 'It should have been the UGC chairman Alice Lam Lee Kiu-yu rather than Professor Li who were explaining why funding was cut,' said Chan Chi-wai, vice-chairman of the Federation of Higher Education Staff Associations. 'The roles of the UGC and the EMB are confusing. The UGC is no longer a buffer but is just carrying out EMB's policies.' He backed legislators' criticisms that the current funding mechanism lacked transparency. 'The UGC should make public how it comes to its decisions. For example, why will the University of Hong Kong have a 10 per cent funding cut in 2007, while that for the other big university, CUHK, is 7.6 per cent?' Lingnan University is the only institution which will have its budget increased, by 2.1 per cent, in 2007. Dr Chan warned that the funding reductions had put institutions' academic freedom and autonomy under threat as they might be forced to close some departments. On the hefty cuts for HKIEd, legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, who is also a council member of Polytechnic University, said the UGC should have consulted the education sector. 'Then it should have reported back their views to the government instead of just cutting HKIEd's student places,' he said. He shared Cheung Man-kwong's views that the UGC was stepping up control over institution with its increased provision of discretionary grants. A submission by the Hong Kong Federation of Students to Legco said the problem of the imbalanced funding system was more serious than the budget cuts. UGC's Michael Stone defended the committee's role. He said the performance and role-related funding scheme was intended to achieve role differentiation among institutions: 'The UGC is a buffer. Legislators are entitled to their views; I don't have to agree with them. 'It is a complicated formula we use in deciding on the funding, based on the student numbers and the level of students. We have to deal with 17 different categories of student, and the cost of educating different students costs a different amount of money. If you want a decent funding system, it has got to be complicated but it's not a black box. 'Does society have no interest in the performance of the institutions? Should not we be interested in how well universities are doing?' Simon Ho Shun-man, dean of Baptist University's School of Business, said the present system was biased towards research-oriented universities. About 20 per cent of the block grant for institutions is determined by publication of research articles in international journals. 'It is the science faculties which tend to generate more articles. The funding model has neglected research with local relevance,' he said 'There are a lot more uncertainties for universities now in terms of getting funding. Should the government want to develop super universities or see institutions merged, it should hold public discussions and not do so through administrative means.'