HKU council controversy

As head of HKU governing council, Arthur Li should oversee from afar and not seek to micromanage

Kerry Kennedy says universities in Hong Kong have blossomed under the direction of vice-chancellors and presidents, and political appointees should refrain from interfering

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 2:17pm

Arthur Li Kwok-cheung’s appointment as chairman of the University of Hong Kong’s council once again throws the spotlight on university governance. The appointment has predictably raised both opposition and support, reflecting the city’s divided political landscape. Yet “university governance” is an abstract concept not usually part of everyday conversation and highly politicised in the current context. What does it mean to have a university “governed” by a council and what is the role of any chairman appointed to lead the council?

The challenge for Arthur Li’s appointment as the manager of council business at HKU is to oversee the university’s development but not to intervene in its management

There is not a common template for the governance of Hong Kong’s universities. Each has its own ordinance. What is clear is that university councils have a great deal of power in terms of their responsibility for financial oversight, determining terms and conditions of staff and awarding degrees. It is also equally clear that the council chairman appears to be little more than the manager of council business.

In some university ordinances and statutes, the powers of the council can be explicitly delegated to the chief academic officer of the university (the vice-chancellor/president). This person has responsibility for the day-to-day management of the university, not the council chairman. It is important to note that some council powers may not be delegated, so in the University of Hong Kong Ordinance, specific reference is made to annual financial reporting and conditions of staff as powers that must be exercised by the council. The important point is that the council chairman is rarely mentioned in ordinances (apart from the appointment process) and it seems clear that his chief function is to chair council meetings and ensure the university’s statutory obligations and fiduciary responsibilities are met.

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It is the appointment process for the chairman, rather than the functions of the office, that have become controversial. The position is appointed directly by the chief executive in his role as chancellor of each university. Only in the case of the Chinese University is the appointment made on nomination by the council to the chief executive. In all cases, however, the appointment is political in nature and while there may be informal discussions between senior university officials and the chief executive, the decision legislatively rests with Hong Kong’s leader. Under the colonial administration, such appointments were made by the governor, so the practice is not new.

The role of the chief executive as chancellor of each university is common in all ordinances, although the specific functions are not clearly spelled out. The chancellor appears to have three broad roles: to award degrees, officiate at the congregation and receive reports from the university. Thus, the role is not related to management of the university but to oversee. It is more than a symbolic role, but it is not one that requires his active involvement in the running of the university. Exactly the same can be said for his nominee as council chairman – it is an oversight role, not an interventionist management role.

READ MORE: Johannes Chan: Arthur Li ‘not the type of person’ to lead HKU

What this distinction highlights is the crucial role of the vice-chancellor/president in the management of the university. As the chief delegate of the council, he or she must ensure effective and efficient management and is answerable to the council and through the council to the chancellor. These functions do not belong to the council chairman.

‘University governance’ is an abstract concept not usually part of everyday conversation and highly politicised in the current context

The council, of course, needs to monitor the strategic development of the university, contribute to it, support it and be a source of support for university staff. Where the council believes the vice-chancellor/president is not doing his job adequately, there is a case for intervention. But this would be very rare.

Hong Kong’s universities have become world-class institutions because of the leadership provided by vice-chancellors/presidents and their staff. Unwarranted intervention by political appointees and politicians will put this hard-won status at risk. Thus, the challenge for Arthur Li’s appointment as the manager of council business at HKU is to oversee the university’s development but not to intervene in its management. Recognising this distinction is the key to maintaining university autonomy.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education