Hong Kong higher education reaches an inflection point

The past several years have been momentous for higher education in China, for both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. The pandemic and the new security law in Hong Kong that led to arrests, plus greater controls over universities in the rest of the country, illustrate some of the changes underway.

In 2012 we wrote an article titled “Hong Kong’s academic advantage” that was published in Chinese in the prestigious Peking University Education Review. Much has happened during the past decade that has changed the scenario, but it is worth looking back to see how the ‘advantages’ we identified then have held up and what this means for the future.

Things have changed in the global rankings of the top universities in greater China. In the 2011 Times Higher Education rankings, the top three Hong Kong institutions ranked 34, 51 and 151. The top two universities in Beijing (Tsinghua and Peking universities) were 49 and 71. By 2021, Tsinghua and Peking were 20 and 23, while the three Hong Kong institutions were at 39 or tied for 56.

Hong Kong’s universities have by no means substantively declined – but clearly they no longer outpace their counterparts in China. Clearly, the Chinese mainland institutions have caught up.

A decade of change

Higher education has seen dramatic change in the past decade. China’s investment in its top universities has continued and the dividends of almost a half century of support are evident. Hong Kong’s support for its universities has been steady but has not significantly improved.

In 2019 Hong Kong’s investment in research and development as a proportion of gross domestic product or GDP was 0.9%, (up slightly from 0.7% in 2003), while the Chinese mainland’s support was 2.4% and had increased 10% over the previous year.

Political circumstances in both places have changed dramatically. The July 2020 promulgation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, coming after an extended period of mass protests in which the universities were sites of violent confrontation, has led to constraints on the previously open atmosphere for debate and civic activism.

The long-term implications of the new situation are as yet unclear. Many wonder if Hong Kong’s universities will be able to maintain their academic distinctiveness in the years ahead, or will they become, as some predict, “just like universities in the rest of the country?”

The higher education reality on the Chinese mainland has also changed. As noted, the top universities have, by every measure, got better. Their participation in global science has expanded significantly and the higher education system continues to expand with a greater emphasis on skills for graduate employment.

There is also, without question, a greater emphasis on conformity to Communist Party ideology and priorities. There is still more academic freedom and institutional autonomy and less self-censorship in Hong Kong than elsewhere in China, but the gap has shrunk since 2012.

Comparative academic advantage?

We emphasised specific characteristics of Hong Kong’s higher education landscape in our 2012 article. It is worth looking at these themes in the context of current realities.

‘Steering’ and autonomy. In 2012 we noted an effective combination of institutional autonomy and policy steering by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong. That autonomy still seems to be in place, but government representation on university councils has become more activist in institutional management.

Four students at two universities were arrested on 18 August 2021 for alleged national security infractions and dissident posters are prohibited on campus. A professor, Benny Tai, was fired on 28 July 2020 by a university council for a criminal conviction resulting from a civic protest movement he co-founded in 2014, although the academic senate had decided to retain him.

Governance. Following patterns of academic organisation from both the British tradition and American practice, shared governance seemed to work reasonably well in Hong Kong, with considerable authority vested in the faculty but with strong administrative leadership as well.

That organisational equilibrium has not significantly shifted, but university presidents have a more challenging balancing act between government authorities and the academic community. Few expect that ‘mainland style’ Party secretaries will be imposed on Hong Kong universities.

English dominates. With a few exceptions, Hong Kong’s higher education system functions entirely in English. The past 10 years of internationalisation have made English more salient in mainland universities with many leading professors and academic administrators having earned doctorates abroad in English.

Some mainland universities have established English-language degree programmes in business administration and other fields. Foreign students at places like Beijing Normal University can write and have their doctoral dissertations examined in English.

Several UK and US universities have campuses in China (including New York University, Duke University, the University of Liverpool and the University of Nottingham) and operate in English, as do two of Hong Kong’s universities with campuses on the mainland.

Internationalism. Hong Kong is still a place that is highly internationalised. In 2021 the University of Hong Kong was ranked by the Times Higher Education as the most international university in the world. The other Hong Kong universities still see themselves as international institutions, even as they engage deeply with the rest of China.

In 2012 internationalism meant engagement with and hiring from the four main English-speaking countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia. That has gradually come to include more academics from the Chinese mainland with overseas doctorates and an increasing number of top academics from every continent.

Hong Kong has complete access to international publications. There is no censorship of the internet, and academic books that may be restricted elsewhere in Asia are all available in Hong Kong. Criticism of government policies is tolerated more than in Singapore.

The academic profession. The professoriate is key to Hong Kong’s success in higher education. Despite recent changes, there is no indication of a significant exodus of university academics. Terms and conditions of academic work – including salaries, teaching responsibilities, administrative support and research funding available on a competitive basis from local sources – still align with global norms.

Hong Kong has always been able to recruit some of the best academic minds. This is increasingly true for top tier Chinese mainland universities.

Distinguished local and international academics have an external role to play in assessing Hong Kong’s research applications, research output and impact and teaching programmes. Hiring, promotion and tenure are performance-based and quite competitive processes.

Hong Kong also provides a Chinese cultural environment for overseas returnees, without many of the complications of the mainland, with less bureaucracy, more participation and transparency.

University leadership. Hong Kong has prided itself on the quality and prominence of its vice-chancellors and presidents, who have played an important role in the success of their universities. The research universities have been able to attract top academic talent, often drawing from the Chinese diaspora.

Not just figureheads or agents of the government, most of these university heads were recruited from the world’s best research universities where they distinguished themselves in many different fields, especially in medicine, science and technology. These individuals, and their institutions, risk a great deal if they appear to accommodate any academic suppression.

Academic freedom. Academic freedom is key to a successful university. The freedom to teach, undertake and publish research without constraint has been a hallmark of Hong Kong’s universities. As of July 2020, institutions and universities are supposed to promote the national security law.

The largest teachers’ union decided to disband after being targeted by the Chinese government for being too political. Three of the 11 universities already plan to offer a required course about national security.

Students and teachers who use or design courses that address themes such as independence, revolution, terrorism or collaboration with foreign forces risk arrest and prosecution under the national security law. Thus far, however, there has been no government clampdown on lectures, classroom discussion, seminars, academic conferences, research or scholarship – but the kind of academic freedom protected in the past is very much in question.

What does the future hold?

Hong Kong’s universities are at an inflection point. Traditional academic norms of academic freedom and openness have lost some ground since 2012. It will be costly if this begins to hinder international recruitment and the vitality of Hong Kong’s universities.

There is a ‘wait and see’ atmosphere about the full extent of the political changes to come and how they will affect academic life. Some say that the advantages Hong Kong enjoyed in 2012 have begun to dissipate. Others say that universities will enjoy new advantages as Hong Kong and its adjacent cities plan to lead the world in high-tech innovation as a result of a new initiative of the central government.

The higher education sector has survived several years of unrest and pressure without collapse. The extent to which Hong Kong’s universities will continue to enjoy the advantages they have enjoyed in the past over the next 26 years leading up to the reconsideration of the current agreement in 2047, will determine their position among top universities in China and the global academy.

Gerard A Postiglione is founding coordinator of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia at the University of Hong Kong, and professor emeritus of the faculty of education, Hong Kong, China. Philip G Altbach is founding director and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States.