Hong Kong’s higher education – 20 years after handover

Twenty years after its retrocession to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has managed to develop more world-class universities than perhaps any other city in the world. How did this happen and can it be sustained?

In 1960, it would have been hard to imagine that a colonial society with one small undergraduate university would come to spawn several great universities. One English-medium university, established in 1911, prepared civil servants and other leaders from the local community, as well as some overseas Chinese.

As the school system grew, it became necessary in 1964 to establish a second university, with Chinese as a medium of instruction, to address the need for a broader community of a highly educated elite in business and government.

Towards retrocession

By the end of the 1980s, degree places at these two universities and several local colleges crept up from 2% to 8% of the relevant age group. Around 1990, several factors and forces came together that would change Hong Kong higher education in a significant way. First, the Research Grants Council was established in 1991, leading the way for an expansion of postgraduate research.

Second, the emigration of talent in response to the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy triggered the need to double the number of university places and upgrade four colleges to university status.

Third, the transfer of low skill manufacturing to the Chinese mainland opened the way for an upgrade of Hong Kong’s technological infrastructure, a need that was met by the establishment of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1991.

While Hong Kong’s universities sustained their excellence, other Asian universities also became more competitive. Hong Kong did not follow the other three Asian dragons (South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) when in the early 1990s their governments decided to invest heavily in high technology. (It would take another quarter century for Hong Kong to invest heavily in technological innovation, especially as its adjoining mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, a farming village until 1984, was transformed into a high tech powerhouse 30 years later).

Fourth, approaching the uncertainties of retrocession in 1997, university salaries rose sharply to ensure they could retain and attract a talented professoriate from Hong Kong and abroad. As Hong Kong approached the retrocession of sovereignty in 1997, it found itself with seven universities.

The lure of academic freedom

The end of the colonial era in 1997 coincided with the desire of many overseas Chinese scholars and scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to return to China’s new Special Administrative Region (SAR), which had a high degree of academic freedom and professional autonomy similar to their overseas alma mater.

Moreover, the end of the colonial era also saw recruitment from an increasing pool of overseas nationals from non-English speaking countries who had earned their doctorates in Western countries.

Shortly after the retrocession of sovereignty and before 2000, the University of Hong Kong found itself atop a new ranking of Asia’s top universities. By 2000, and through the first decade and a half of the 21st century, all factors were in place for Hong Kong to live up to a reputation as a university global city.

Despite spending 0.7% of GDP on research and development (R&D), much lower than South Korea, Singapore or Taiwan, Hong Kong’s universities have managed to enter and sustain their place in the world-class global rankings. Much of Hong Kong’s success has been due to confidence in the autonomy of universities, an openness to new ideas, a lack of deference on the part of academics, scholars and scientists to anything except the truth as the first value of universities.

Hong Kong is the most academically free and autonomous academic system in Asia. For example, no one has ever been fired for academic views or actions as a public intellectual. On the contrary, university presidents have upheld academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The world wide web is completely open to academics and students. There are no travel restrictions on academics. There is no book, academic or otherwise, or article in academic journals or the print media that is not accessible to all.

In short, Hong Kong’s academic atmosphere is not unlike that at top overseas universities, which explains why it can attract academic staff from such institutions.

A new tension in higher education and society emerged prior to the 20th anniversary of sovereignty retrocession. Struggles over universal suffrage spilled over into university politics. The Umbrella Movement became a historical turning point in Hong Kong society, but it also made its way into the blocked appointment of a new university vice president and created a controversy over the role of the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR and his/ her appointment of members of university councils.

The future of Hong Kong higher education will hinge upon whether it can sustain the values and practices that have made Hong Kong a centre of global higher education. As of now, such values and practices are still prized. Hong Kong’s universities continue to ensure the promotion of open enquiry and trust, widespread communication of ideas and inclusive educational and academic exchanges.

Governance, research ethics and diversity

Hong Kong’s universities also work hard to attract the best minds from around the world and integrate them closely into their universities, including governance. Hong Kong’s universities also ensure that impersonal criteria are used for establishing scientific facts, as well as ensuring that scientists and scholars do not profit financially from their research.

Although the universities have state-of-the-art hardware, including a developed infrastructure of laboratories, libraries and IT, they emphasise the software side of things.

All of Hong Kong’s universities use external peer review systems to ensure academic and scientific arguments are tested by the best. Academics are given a significant voice in running their universities and academic communities work for the growth of an enlightened public and civil society.

Finally, Hong Kong’s universities are attuned to the value of diverse types of intelligence in the recruitment of students and staff, including men and women from different regional, racial, ethnic and national communities.

Local and national changes

The challenge will be to sustain the position of Hong Kong’s universities and their service to the local, national and global community. Some positive changes for the future are currently taking place. These changes are on both the local and national levels.

On the local level, the Hong Kong government will double the R&D percentage of GDP over the next five years. The chief executive announced that investment in R&D would increase from the current 0.73% to 1.5% within five years. The government has allocated about HK$10 billion (US$1.3 billion) for university research funding.

To increase innovation and collaboration with industry, there will be a tax deduction for R&D expenditure incurred by enterprises. On top of this, the Education Bureau is putting HK$3 billion (US$384 million) toward studentships for local students in University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded research postgraduate programmes.

The Innovation and Technology Bureau allocated a HK$500 million (US$64 million) ‘Technology Talent Scheme’, including a ‘Postdoctoral Hub’, and HK$700 million (US$90 million) will be invested for projects to develop Hong Kong into a Smart City.

On the national level, Hong Kong’s universities will be positioned within two new initiatives. First, the One Belt and One Road initiative will deepen educational and academic cooperation with the Belt-and-Road countries, especially those in South and Southeast Asia. Second, the Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Bay Area initiative will give a role to universities in making the region competitive with the high tech centres in San Francisco, Tokyo and New York.

Gerard A Postiglione is chair professor in higher education, coordinator of the Consortium for Research on Higher Education in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong. This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond.