More R&D spending a smart investment for Hong Kong

Paul Yip says tapping big budget surpluses would be a good way to increase funding and boost competitiveness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 2:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 2:11pm

The recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings revealed that all Hong Kong universities have been slipping down the table. The University of Hong Kong ranked 43, against 35 in 2013. Yet, the National University of Singapore moved up, from 29 to 25.

Nevertheless, for the social sciences discipline, HKU ranked 29, the same as the National University of Singapore. And HKU still ranks above other institutions in Hong Kong. It is important to know that more than 60 per cent of its weighting relates to research performance - the number and impact of publications; 30 per cent to teaching and learning; and, the rest to industrial income and international reputation (including the number of exchange students).

And it is only a ranking; if others have improved at a faster rate, we can still be slipping behind. At the end of day, it is a comparison and a competition and sometimes we might take it too seriously. Such criteria might not be the most appropriate to best capture the contributions and relevance of universities. Nevertheless, it is still a reflection of how our universities are perceived in the local and international communities.

Universities should be places to nurture innovation, creativity and talent, extending knowledge and making a difference to the world. That all takes time to build up. It is unfortunate that our community (the government and business sectors) has not invested enough in higher education because it has a direct impact on the city's future.

Innovation and technological advancement lag behind our neighbours'. Long-term investment by business in technology is rare. In 2013, the government spent about US$2 billion on research and development - just 0.73 per cent of GDP. Singapore, by comparison, spent US$5.8 billion, or 2 per cent of GDP. The University of Singapore has been strategic in boosting its ranking, recruiting experts from overseas with generous packages. We are losing out in the international market for high-calibre academics due to high living and education costs.

Shenzhen, meanwhile, has spent US$9.3 billion, or about 4 per cent of its GDP on R&D. This former fishing village is now a manufacturing, technological and innovation hub with a population of more than 10 million. It provides an attractive environment for individuals and companies with matching support and start-up funds.

Hong Kong clearly needs to re-examine its R&D policy to become more competitive. We should not undermine our own advantages of a solid legal system, which protects intellectual property, something yet to be established on the mainland. We need to nourish our local talent and attract foreign talent, too. One can complement the other. With a rapidly ageing population, it is urgent that we invest in innovation and technology to make up the workforce shortfall.

On the human capital front, the government has spent considerable resources to train research students in universities. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch in manpower and opportunities for graduates. According to the latest projections, there is a surplus of workers with postgraduate qualifications because the economy has not been transformed and realigned quickly enough to respond to rapid technological changes. There is a shortage of opportunities in higher education institutions and research centres. We are losing our students abroad after they get their PhDs.

The Macau government is also using tertiary institutions to recruit students from the mainland and overseas. There are 10 post-secondary institutes for only half a million residents in Macau; they hope some overseas students might stay after graduation.

Hong Kong has nearly full employment but only 6.9 per cent are employed in R&D per 1,000 of our working population. The figure is 11.75 per cent in Singapore, and 20.99 per cent in Taiwan.

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has run budget surpluses running into billions of dollars and expects to continue to do so. Yet we are still failing to improve our R&D capacity to prepare for the future. The HK$5 billion innovation fund announced in the budget is a good start but committed efforts and strategic investment are needed to make Hong Kong competitive. Despite limited investment in R&D, HKU still manages to remain in the top 50 global universities. We can do better with more R&D funding. Investing in R&D can certainly make Hong Kong more competitive and attractive.

Paul Yip is professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong