Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten has raised hackles in Hong Kong by claiming the autonomy of local universities is being reined in because of students’ involvement in the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
Patten had said in an article published on 23 February entitled "The Closing of the Academic Mind" for the opinion site Project Syndicate that “universities in China and Hong Kong are faced with threats to their autonomy and freedom not from within, but from an authoritarian government”.
Referring to Hong Kong, where he was governor from 1992 to 1997, he said: “The rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel, so the city's government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing.”
But in a sharp rebuke issued on Wednesday the Hong Kong government insisted it “attaches great importance to upholding academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.
The Hong Kong government said academic freedom was “an important social value treasured by Hong Kong” and safeguarded by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law. “It is also a cornerstone of the success of the higher education sector.”
The Hong Kong Education Bureau said Patten’s claim that the city was acting on Beijing’s orders was “totally groundless and sheer fabrication”.
Patten further inflamed the Hong Kong authorities by referring to the Hong Kong chief executive’s role as chancellor – a particularly sensitive issue at present when the position of Hong Kong’s unpopular Chief Executive CY Leung as chancellor of the public funded universities is being questioned by students and university staff because of perceived political interference in university governance since the 2014-15 pro-democracy protests, popularly known as the Umbrella Movement.
Patten wrote: “Universities should be bastions of freedom in any society. They should be free from government interference in their primary purposes of research and teaching; and they should control their own academic governance. I do not believe it is possible for a university to become or remain a world-class institution if these conditions do not exist.”
He claimed that although he was chancellor of Hong Kong’s universities while he was Hong Kong governor, at the time he had said it would be better for universities to choose their own constitutional heads.
“The universities would not allow me to resign gracefully,” said Patten, who is currently chancellor of Oxford University, UK.
Staff and students are campaigning for changes to the power of Hong Kong’s chief executive as ex officio chancellor to appoint members of university governing councils.
Some 25,000 staff in the eight publicly funded universities will vote next month on whether ordinances should be revised to drop the rule that the Hong Kong chief executive is automatically a member of the institutions’ governing councils and to propose increasing the proportion of elected student and staff members on university councils.
While any changes would still have to be approved by Hong Kong’s legislative council, the vote is being seen as a crucial referendum on university sentiment on the chief executive’s role.
But the Hong Kong government disputed Patten’s version saying the British colonial government had enshrined this role in legislation.
In its statement on 24 February, the Hong Kong Education Bureau said when Patten was governor in the 1990s he had in fact reaffirmed the “statutory mechanism for the governor to be the chancellor of all government-funded universities in Hong Kong, and this mechanism was enshrined through legislation”.
The mechanism “was not abolished at the time of Hong Kong’s return to China [in 1997], therefore the current practice of the chief executive being the chancellor of the government-funded universities precisely stems from the then governor Patten’s decision”, it said.
Richard Armour, secretary-general of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, or UGC, which advises the Hong Kong government on the publicly funded higher education sector, told University World News on Wednesday: “I don’t sense that any of our universities feel threatened,” either systemically or from mainland China.
“One of the UGC’s jobs is to make sure that protection is in place for the whole [higher education system], not just institutional autonomy and academic freedom, so that the system stays distinct and well-regarded globally.”
He said Hong Kong’s institutions had over 100 years of freedom. “Maintaining it the way it is, is in everybody’s interest,” he said with reference to global rankings which put several Hong Kong universities among the top in Asia.
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