People complained about the quality of Hong Kong's universities today, said Professor Chen, but in fact the universities had gone a long way to improve themselves. He had lived and worked in universities for 37 years. When he started, standards were really a lot lower. The professors did not publish anything much; anyone with a PhD was already a head of department. This did not matter so much when only the elite students went to university. The elite knew how to study by themselves. Nowadays, standards were a lot higher.
Professor Chen wished to raise five issues concerning quality in the tertiary sector.
The first mistake was the view that grammar did not need to be taught. One could argue that expression was more important than grammar, but the problem with this was that most pupils had no exposure to English outside school. If they did not get grammar in school, then they would not get it at all. So, today, many students reached university unable to construct a single sentence correctly. It was disastrous.
The second mistake was the decision that kindergarten was not part of the formal education sector. Logically, on this view one should prevent kindergartens from forming. But the Government simply let it be: as kindergartens emerged in response to demand the Government did no quality control, no monitoring, and provided no funding. It was true laissez-faire: a totally uncontrolled pre-school sector. Only in the last five years had the Government started to wake up to the consequences of its mistake. But it was too late. It would be very difficult to reform the sector now. In other areas of activity, one could remedy past deficiencies by importing the missing resources. But you could not import kindergarten teachers, you had to use indigenous resources.
So one found, for example, that something like 95% of students could not pronounce 10 of the letters of the alphabet correctly. This could not be changed, and it was because they had learnt the pronunciation wrongly in their formative years in kindergarten. Ironically, the students were able to pronounce more difficult words correctly, because they had learnt these later in their schooling under better teachers.
In other countries, it was recognised that kindergarten required special skills, child psychology, problem-solving techniques. But this was not the case in Hong Kong. And it was not just an educational problem. The Hong Kong elite were able to find and pay for good kindergarten schooling, and this already put their children onto the social ladder; it created a social barrier.
The Government had told the universities to expand places, but did not provide them with any support. In earlier times when they just served the elite, the universities did not need so many resources – the students were clever and knew how to study themselves; they came equipped with the skills they would need in university and applied these skills with little further guidance. But a totally different approach was needed when dealing with the mass. The universities had to do much more. The students of today did not know how to study, how to take notes; they were rude to the lecturers and to each other; they did not even have table manners, or self-confidence. The universities had to do remedial work to help them catch up in all these areas. Professor Chen saw the need for a kind of boot camp, an intensive course on the basics of studying and human interaction on the students’ arrival. And of course it was impossible for the universities to do this kind of work efficiently with the resources they had.
This was inappropriate because the Government had deliberately sought diversity. Ranking the universities together was comparing apples and oranges. There were two comprehensive universities (University of Hong Kong and Chinese University); two polytechnics (City and Hong Kong) which focused on applied research and technical subjects; the University of Science and Technology which tried to do leading edge research, and was smaller; and a teacher training college. Lingnan and Baptist were harder to classify. Baptist was like the US liberal arts model, but was not residential. Lingnan was perhaps the closest adherent of the liberal-arts mission. A liberal-arts university had to be small, fully residential, devoted to teaching as much as research. And it was consequently expensive. Lingnan had 75% of its students on campus, and accepted a maximum of 2,000. The Hong Kong Government could not understand the function of such a university. They could not understand why students would want to go to a Wiliams or a Carleton in the US rather than to a Harvard.
So there were eight universities with different missions. They should not be ranked against one another, said Professor Chen. Unfortunately, students did not appreciate the differences between universities. In the US, students and their parents would visit 20 ore more campuses to chose one, travelling far across the country. But in Hong Kong, students often saw the campus of their university for the first time when they arrived to study there.
Breadth vs. specialisation
Professor Chen outlined the characteristics of the new economy. Economies of scale no longer applied: technology enabled small enterprises to be efficient. Products could be custom-made to individual taste, using computer-aided design and manufacturing. Production was global, not local. The "country of origin" concept was obsolete. Hence the flood of global M&A transactions. Technology made communication and coordination of all these acquisitions much easier. Economies of scope became important – witness, for example, the success of General Electric, a multi-business enterprise. In a world like this, it was not technological skills that were key but creativity, adaptability. It was also important to foster diversity, including diversity within the universities.
This was why it was wrong to suggest, as some government officials were doing, that Hong Kong’s universities should be consolidated. These officials saw that seven of Hong Kong’s universities were offering MBAs. Why not consolidate these courses and just have one MBA course? Why not have just one university? Would this not be more efficient? But these officials were missing the point. It was true that it was slightly more expensive for different institutions to offer their own versions of the MBA, but the point was in these very differences. You needed diversity, and to get it you needed diverse universities.
It was not wise to cut university funding. The experience of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, where funding had been cut and places simultaneously expanded, was a warning. Since then Britain had slipped down the academic rankings. A decline in standards would in turn make it more difficult to attract private funding. The ideal would be corporatisation, not privatisation. Professor Chen would like Lingnan to be converted into a trading fund capitalised with, say, 20 years’ expenditure. Performance should be monitored, since this endowment would be public money, but the university management could be given a much freer hand than at present.
From the financial point of view, the new role of providing sub-degree education was attractive, said Professor Chen. In fact, he had no choice but to take it up, in order to gain the precious subsidy for Lingnan’s mainstream activity of teaching degree students. But would it be good for the students? Of course, one could simply contract out the work, and lend the university’s name to it regardless. But Professor Chen felt that in the case of his university substantial effort would have to be devoted to quality control. This effort and attention would be diverted from the degree students; it was inevitable. So there would be an impact on standards. It was a case of mission drift. Universities, designed and dedicated to the mission of serving degree students, were now being asked to take on a different, competing mission.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation
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