Diverse campuses prepare Hong Kong for global competition

Richard Armour says Hong Kong universities cannot afford to ignore trend of internationalisation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 10:32pm

It has been almost three years since internationalisation was endorsed as a strategy for all Hong Kong higher-education institutions funded by the University Grants Committee. In its report, "Aspirations for the Higher Education System in Hong Kong", published in 2010, the committee recommended that institutions review their activities with this in mind, "as a matter of urgency".

This continues to be a vital task.

Recently, some members of the community have questioned whether non-local students, in particular those from the mainland, have taken away university places and other opportunities from our local students. These views suggest that the benefits of internationalisation have yet to be fully understood and embraced by the whole community.

Internationalisation brings benefits in different but interconnected ways.

The most cited benefit is to the individual student. Internationalisation improves students' job prospects. It enhances their social and cultural awareness, and sharpens their communication skills in all languages. In essence, it makes students globally ready.

Hong Kong students need to compete in an increasingly globalised world for jobs at levels commensurate with their expectations and capabilities.

There are some costs to be incurred, but those are greatly outweighed by the benefits

We can expect that, in Hong Kong of all places, local employers see that - because of our economic as well as geopolitical positioning - global readiness is an essential quality of graduates here. That has surely been Hong Kong's cutting edge to date and will continue to be in the future.

Beyond benefit to the person, what does society get for investing in this aspect of higher education? Our community benefits from having more informed, broader-thinking individuals with higher social and communication skills.

As a small and externally oriented economy, Hong Kong has always embraced globalisation, free trade and the sharing of knowledge. Hong Kong's continued economic prosperity will no doubt depend on our ability to sustain our efforts in these areas.

Internationalisation will add value to our workforce as part of a knowledge-based economy. This, in turn, should bring us a real return on investment.

Another argument for internationalisation and the urgency for its expansion is the intense competition for talent in our globalised world.

Hong Kong's economy is a service economy, which requires both a highly capable as well as a globally adept workforce, preferably with strong mainland connectivity.

Our tertiary sector must be an integral part of what attracts talent to our shores. If Hong Kong becomes insular and inward-looking, surely we will lose that competitive advantage.

We are aware that we need to maintain a proper balance between internationalising the student body on the one hand, and providing adequate opportunities for local young people on the other.

To this end, the government caps the admission of non-local students, the majority of whom are not admitted through subsidised places and pay higher tuition fees. Opportunities for local students receiving higher education have not been taken away.

As for the mix of non-local students, it should come as no surprise that a significant number are from the mainland. However, in recent years, growth has actually been fastest among students from other parts of Asia.

Institutions and the University Grants Committee are fully aware of the importance and merits of cultural diversity in our campuses. In connection with this, we have committed to provide additional funding to support new initiatives to promote diversity.

Internationalisation means much more than just the recruitment of non-local students to full-time study on campus. Other equally important aspects include the broadening of the curriculum, and providing local students with more opportunities for overseas exchange programmes.

The international diversity of faculty is also important. This has always been a deep-rooted strength of Hong Kong institutions. In this area as well, we cannot be complacent in view of the intense global competition for academics, as universities across the world also recognise the need to hire excellent academics with a range of cultures and backgrounds.

As Asia continues to rise in global economic terms, and with China's ascendance as a world power, Hong Kong has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its celebrated geopolitical location to continue its success story and contribute further to international developments.

Like many other policy initiatives, internationalisation requires some degree of trade-off where choices have to be made. Admittedly, there are some costs to be incurred, like the taking up of dorm spaces, but those are greatly outweighed by the benefits.

The right choice is clear.

Dr Richard T. Armour is secretary general of the University Grants Committee