My Take

Wish for end to chief executive's role at universities could be a slippery slope Hong Kong can't handle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 October, 2015, 12:52am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 October, 2015, 12:52am

Student activists want to end the practice of the chief executive automatically becoming the chancellor of our publicly funded universities to defend their autonomy and academic freedom. In principle, they are right. In practice, it is almost impossible to do. Moreover, they should be careful what they wish for. Radical as it is, they may not know they are threatening the whole governance structure of Hong Kong.

Our system of government is not described as being "executive-led" for nothing. Practically all the heads of public bodies and most if not all of their board members are appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the chief executive. Among these are the commissions on tourism, competition, law reform, women and the elderly, equal opportunities and privacy, as are the Audit Commission, the Town Planning Board, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, judges and the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance.

The financial secretary appoints all the board members of the Securities and Futures Commission through delegated authority by the chief executive. The government likewise appoints the heads of the Commission for Innovation and Technology and the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan.

READ MORE: Hong Kong students plan referendums in fight to remove chief executive as university chancellor and limit 'political retaliation'

The same argument that public universities must enjoy institutional autonomy from government interference applies in principle to many of those public bodies as well. If the governing councils of universities are to be free of appointees by the government or the chief executive, why shouldn't those other public bodies?

We are then talking about a major overhaul of our political system! Don't start what you can't finish or take it too lightly.

The university councils only have a third to half of their members being government appointees. The rest are picked by staff, students and/or professors and by council members themselves. Comparatively, they enjoy more autonomy than the boards of most public bodies.

As recipients of public funding, universities are accountable to the government. If the chief executive were to play no role in their affairs, there would need to be a number of government officials sitting in those councils. That could be worse.