Students can decide for themselves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 2:17am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2015, 2:18am

Since it is accepted that travel and study broadens the mind and can widen career options, the notion of making it compulsory for some of Hong Kong's brightest young people seems unnecessary. They can work it out for themselves, including the case for a study visit to the mainland. So the furore over a reported proposal that our oldest university stipulates a trip to the mainland and one other overseas destination before graduation was understandable.

Thankfully it was shortlived. Pro-vice-chancellor and vice-president of the University of Hong Kong, Professor Ian Holliday, defused it during the week by apologising for a "clumsy and inappropriate" comment that those opposed to a new programme requiring undergraduates to spend more time on the mainland need not enrol. He stressed that HKU had never said the visits would be compulsory and students would be consulted on details of the roll-out. Clarifying reports that he told a student union dinner the new policy would be mandatory for all undergraduates by 2022, Holliday said the only decision agreed was to ensure everyone had the opportunity of one learning experience on the mainland and one internationally.

As a society that invests heavily in tertiary education we trust that students about to graduate can make sensible decisions on such questions without compulsion or direction, and that values and critical faculties nurtured in an open society under the rule of law will stand them in good stead elsewhere. Concerns about a political agenda or brainwashing under-estimate our young people. Amid globalisation, few would disagree that the more we know about China the better. The most populous nation has not only arrived on the world stage but is still developing its rightful place.

Nonetheless, the university has made its position clear, with vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson saying it wanted prospective applicants to know about HKU's expectations so they could decide whether it suits their needs - which does nothing to encourage enrolment if they disagree with its policies. "In view of our geopolitical situation, [the] mainland will be one target area," he said.

The authorities are right to maintain that it is in the interests of its students to learn more about the mainland at first hand to help prepare them for life after university. The case for that speaks for itself.