Excellence drive is short on innovation and creativity

Increased government investments in higher education, coupled with a growing push among institutions in the region to achieve international recognition, have seen growing Asian representation in international higher education league tables. But there are still barriers to achieving excellence on a global scale.

A university president in Hong Kong has expressed concern about cultural attitudes among parents who see higher education simply as a route to a good job, and limited government investment in research, as holding back innovation and creativity.

Tony Chan, president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology or HKUST, which is hosting the Asia Universities Summit on 19-21 June on the theme of innovation and creativity, warned of obstacles posed by two extremes: overregulation by government and a rush to commercialise ideas following innovation from campus labs, at the expense of the core mission to educate future leaders of society.

Some barriers are cultural, such as parents’ attitudes, which can also hinder creativity and innovation. In Hong Kong, as in other Asian countries, many parents expect university education to land their children a “good job”, he said, rather than to unleash their unique potential.

“University education is not just to get graduates a job,” he told University World News. “That’s the minimum of what universities should do. If we only do that, then we are doing a disservice to society.”

He believes creativity will require a “mindset change”, but acknowledges that culture cannot be changed overnight. There is a need to develop among students the willingness to try things out, and not be afraid of failure, he added. To capitalise on the Internet economy, a number of institutions in Hong Kong have poured resources into encouraging entrepreneurship among students, he said.

Chan said there were other barriers to creativity and innovation. “In some countries, especially in Asia, governments are overenthusiastic and expect so much from universities, saying they have invested so much and asking what’s the result for next year.”

It is important to strike a balance, he said. “Those are two extremes. Hong Kong is fortunately more in the middle.”

He points to Hong Kong’s advantages: proximity to the Southern Chinese boom city of Shenzhen – home to innovative firms such as Huawei and DJI, the drone manufacturer founded by a HKUST alumnus – and openness, including the free flow of information, a skilled bilingual workforce and world-class infrastructure.

“Hong Kong will continue to play a significant role in advancing the region’s science and technology development,” he said. But the city pales in comparison with Singapore, China and South Korea in its investment in research as a percentage of gross domestic product, he noted.

These countries have embarked on a strong drive to move from quantity of research to quality and innovation, pouring huge resources into areas such as artificial intelligence and smart cities.

The Hong Kong government has lately earmarked HK$2 billion (US$258 million) for midstream research at universities, following the creation of a policy bureau responsible for innovation and technology with the mission of driving research to a new level.

Asia-specific university rankings

Hong Kong and Singapore led the Asia-specific university rankings released by QS last week. The rankings were led by the National University of Singapore, and the top four slots alternate between Singapore and Hong Kong, with the University of Hong Kong second, Nanyang Technological University third and HKUST fourth.

China’s Tsinghua and Peking universities, and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Seoul National University are also in the top 10, with Japanese universities dominating the 10-20 slots.

Meanwhile, the number of Asian institutions represented in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings has risen from 10 in 2015 to 18 this year.

But as noted by Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, an organiser of the HKUST event which will host up to 30 university heads from 15 countries including China, the United States, Germany, South Korea and Singapore, the challenge now for the region is to turn high skills into the “sort of creative, disruptive, challenging environment that allows more true world-changing discoveries where the Nobel Prize has come from, where the game-changing new technology has come from”.