Grants body sends letter ahead of Legco debate The University Grants Committee has hit back at claims it was influenced by the government in its dealings with the Hong Kong Institute of Education, declaring its independence from the administration. In a letter to be discussed by the Legislative Council's education panel on Monday, the UGC refutes the suggestion by witnesses in the inquiry investigating allegations of government interference at the institute that its members 'tend to do the bidding of the administration'. The inquiry heard claims that the UGC acted as a 'rubber stamp' and co-operated with the Education and Manpower Bureau - now the Education Bureau - to achieve the government's objectives. It was alleged the government tried to disadvantage the institute by reducing its student numbers. Institute president Paul Morris testified that when HKIEd approached the UGC about student number allocations, committee representatives 'shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Talk to the EMB''. However, the UGC dismisses the claims. 'If one looks at the membership, we consider such a charge cannot be sustained,' the letter, posted on the Legco website, says. It argues that the UGC consists of eight senior academics from overseas, who have no connection with the government, five prominent local academics and 10 local members of society. 'In short, it is an independent body.' The UGC says the suggestion that the Secretary for Education and Manpower was the 'vote controller' of UGC funds was 'factually incorrect' and that this power lies with its secretary-general. 'The UGC has also not lost its autonomy in allocating resources,' it states. It was also revealed during the inquiry that the permanent EMB secretary must approve the UGC secretary-general's performance appraisal, which the current secretary-general Michael Stone testified was odd and would surprise the public. But the UGC letter says the secretary-general reports to the committee's chairman, not the permanent secretary. It also says the UGC had 'difficulty' with the inquiry's recommendation for an independent committee to deal with complaints from UGC-funded institutions. 'We are concerned about the possible effect on institutional autonomy, as currently the authority and responsibility of handling complaints lie with the individual UGC-funded institutions themselves.' The letter takes issue with claims that the Quality Assurance Council, established by the UGC, provided 'another instrument' for the administration and the UGC to interfere with academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Describing this as a 'regrettable and misguided comment', the letter says such bodies are common features of many of the world's best education systems. A letter from the government, also to be discussed on Monday, says there is no question of the UGC interfering with academic freedom and institutional autonomy via the Quality Assurance Council. The administration also raises concerns about the recommendation for an independent committee to handle complaints, arguing that 'such a proposal will undermine the institutions' autonomy in handling staff matters and complaints'. However, University Education Concern Group convenor Dora Choi Po-king described the UGC's letter as a 'weak defence' which failed to address structural problems raised during the inquiry. She said it had become clear that the Education Bureau could 'micromanage' the allocation of resources for teacher education programmes. Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Higher Education Staff Associations Shum Kar-ping maintained that the role of the UGC should be reviewed. 'I think there should be more transparency and the people should know what is going on and how it operates,' he said. A UGC spokeswoman said chairwoman Laura Cha Shih May-lung and Mr Stone would not comment before the education panel meeting.