The High Court should look into the University of Hong Kong’s governing council over its snubbing of a liberal legal scholar for a prominent post to ensure the academic autonomy enshrined in the Basic Law was being followed, a judicial review application has heard. Lawyers for former HKU student union president Billy Fung Jing-en and his then vice-president Coleman Li Fung-kei urged the Court of First Instance to give the go-ahead for a judicial challenge to the council’s decision to reject legal scholar Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun for a pro-vice-chancellor post in September last year. Chan’s bid was cut short after t he council voted 12-8 against the appointment following a string of accusations published in pro-Beijing newspapers against the candidate recommended by an HKU search committee. Fung and Li lodged their legal action in December. They originally asked the court to quash the council’s decision. But the pair backtracked on Tuesday, asking only for a declaration that the decision was made wrongly based on irrelevant information, as the post had since been filled by psychology professor Terry Au Kit-fong. In arguing for the students, senior counsel Gladys Li relied on Article 137 of the Basic Law, which states: “Educational institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.” Li argued that HKU had a “public duty” to show it was upholding its autonomy to prevent interference from other parties, such as the government or religious bodies. She cited Chan’s affiliation with the Civic Party and Hong Kong 2020, a pro-democracy think tank led by former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang. She said this should not be a factor for consideration. “A university has to be neutral and seen to be neutral,” she said. If the court failed to look into it, she said, the public would not know if there was any interference. But barrister Benjamin Yu SC, for the university, rejected the argument that the matter could be turned into a public issue to be taken up by the courts just because there had been numerous news reports. He said an academic could sue on the grounds of discrimination if he or she was treated differently based on their political view or sexual orientation. Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung reserved judgment to a later date.