Academics from mainland China outnumber Hong Kong faculty

In Hong Kong’s universities, academics of mainland Chinese origin this year outnumbered Hong Kong faculty for the first time, according to official figures, raising fears that an ongoing trend in this direction could affect the international character of universities in Hong Kong, and their culture of open research.

The change is driven in part by an exodus of Hong Kong academics in recent years, in particular since the National Security Law imposed by Beijing came into force in July 2020.

However, talent drives by the Hong Kong government as the Hong Kong population declines, the setting up in Hong Kong of more China-funded research labs, including key laboratories at several Hong Kong universities, and the recruitment of Chinese academics who had been working in universities in the West have also been factors, experts said.

According to figures from Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC), while mainland academics outnumber Hong Kong-born faculty, they are still an overall minority in most Hong Kong public universities, with the exception of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – where they make up 48% of academics. This is due to the high number of international faculty in the city’s universities, who make up a third of the total.

The UGC figures show that of 5,120 academics employed by Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities this academic year, 1,815 were of mainland Chinese origin – 35% of the total – compared to 1,650 Hong Kong academics at these universities.

The numbers of Hong Kong academics had dropped from 1,924 five years ago to 1,650 this year – about a third of the total – while mainland academics had risen from 1,224 five years ago.

The number of academics in Hong Kong from the rest of the world has declined slightly from around 34% to 32% of the total.

Effect on research culture

Some Hong Kong academics have privately raised concerns that a preponderance of academics from the mainland could alter Hong Kong’s open research culture. At present around 25% of mainland academics are in science faculties, around 20% of them are in engineering and technology, and a similar proportion are in business and management.

Universities in Hong Kong which have established branches on the mainland have also created a ‘pipeline’ for mainland researchers and academics to come to Hong Kong, whether temporarily or permanently.

Hong Kong academics also privately expressed concerns that if academics of mainland origin overtake the number of Hong Kong and international faculty, Hong Kong research could shift from their own areas of excellence, in which they have built up significant research collaboration links overseas, to research dictated by China’s national priorities.

However, Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said “achieving a balance to make [universities] in Hong Kong more diverse is an advantage”.

“It does not matter where academics come from as much as it matters that they reject orthodoxy and subscribe to the highest values of the global academy,” he told University World News.

Postiglione added that mainland academics were of very diverse backgrounds. “Did they go overseas for a bachelor’s degree? Or did they go for a masters or a doctoral degree? If they went overseas for the doctorate, did they build their careers there [in the West] for 20 years, and then come to Hong Kong? It’s hard to put them all in one box.”

He noted that in the past decade, mainland universities have been rising in quality and in international rankings and with the China producing large numbers of PhDs, it was little surprise that Chinese academics were doing well internationally. “They should be recruited here in Hong Kong,” he said.

“Hong Kong’s universities are strikingly similar in academic character to Western universities. If mainland academics were able to operate in the West at a minimum of a doctorate [level], then coming to a university in Hong Kong is not going to change their academic ethos.”

He added: “It’s good for all as long as it is not tipped too far in one direction or another. Balance is to the advantage of research universities.”

Academics also noted that with the mainland producing many more PhDs than in the past and tenured positions at top Chinese universities becoming harder to come by, more were likely to apply to leading Hong Kong universities.

However, Hong Kong academics who sit on recruitment panels noted privately that the number of applicants per post from the rest of the world has declined substantially in the past five years and particularly since the pandemic and introduction of the National Security Law.

Non-discrimination policy

Of the city’s universities, HKUST has the largest proportion of academics from the mainland – 48% of all faculty members, compared to just 15% from Hong Kong.

A spokesperson from HKUST told University World News the institution “engages in proactive faculty recruitment from around the world” and decisions are made “taking into consideration the candidates’ academic profiles and achievements, development potential and other relevant academic factors”.

“With our state-of-the-art research facilities and ample opportunities brought by our collaborations with government, academic and industrial partners, HKUST is able to attract faculty graduating from prestigious universities globally, from 40 different countries and jurisdictions. Some of our faculty members are also graduates of HKUST.”

But the spokesperson added, some had applied from HKUST’s new campus in Guangzhou in China’s southern Guangdong province, which opened last year.

“Since the establishment of HKUST (Guangzhou) in September last year, we have noticed an increase in the number of researchers interested in joining the university as they believe HKUST will provide them with an international research environment and enable them to bring their research achievements to the Greater Bay Area and domestic markets.”

The Greater Bay Area is a Chinese government project to link up Hong Kong and Macau to nine cities in Guangdong province to create a huge innovation hub and promote cross-border higher education and research collaboration. While the Greater Bay Area is still in its infancy, academics said it had created more interest from mainland academics to collaborate with Hong Kong.

Exodus from Hong Kong

The change in the proportion of Hong Kong and mainland academics is also seen against a backdrop of an exodus from Hong Kong of educated Hong Kongers.

Staff turnover has been high at HKUST, which has seen a jump in staff departures, with 56 academics leaving in 2021-22, almost double compared to 24 academic departures the year before, some of them replaced with mainland academics.

Overall, at Hong Kong’s universities the number of academic staff who left Hong Kong’s public universities in the past academic year was up by 30% compared to the 2020-21 academic year. At 362, it was the highest number of academic departures since 1997-98 – the year of the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to China, according to the latest figures.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU), the city’s top ranked university, has around 34% of its faculty from the mainland while Hong Kong academics make up 29%. A university spokesperson stressed that HKU recruits its academics internationally.

“Candidates must meet stringent entry requirements and academic standards, including work experience at renowned universities or research institutions, academic achievements and recognition through scholarships or honours,” he said.

Apart from HKUST and HKU, faculty from the mainland outnumber Hong Kong faculty at City University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University and are almost equal to the number of Hong Kong faculty at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, at around 20%.

Laurie Pearcey, associate vice-president for external engagement at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), confirmed that Hong Kong academics were a majority at the university, where 26.8% of staff hail from mainland China, a further 24.4% come from other countries and territories, and 48.9% are from Hong Kong.

Recent UGC data indicates that approximately one-third of early-career academics in STEM disciplines and 21.5% in non-STEM disciplines, respectively, come from Greater China.

“We do not see the five state key laboratories as any different from other world-class research infrastructure at CUHK in terms of their ability to attract talent from the mainland or elsewhere. I would point out, for example, that only one of the five state key laboratories is led by an academic originally from mainland China – all others are led by academics originally from Hong Kong,” Pearcey told University World News.

State key laboratories are major national science and technology centres with top-quality specialist research teams funded by Beijing. Around 16 of China’s 469 state key laboratories are in Hong Kong, receiving substantial funding via the Hong Kong government to the tune of around US$2.56 billion over five years.

Five of these laboratories are at CUHK, specialising in translational oncology, agrobiotechnology, clinical applications of medicinal plants, synthetic chemistry and digestive diseases. Pearcey said during an earlier interview that the system “enables us to focus on a particular area and scale up”.

He noted that all researchers at the CUHK state key laboratories were recruited directly by CUHK, using the normal criteria for recruitment to the university. “Many of them had been here [at CUHK] for some time and have research expertise in a particular field, and an opportunity arose for them to bid for a key state lab [position].”

He added: “There is no single pathway for mainland academics to arrive at CUHK,” which was similar for Hong Kong academics, “with many completing undergraduate qualifications either at CUHK or elsewhere, before undertaking doctoral studies overseas; and others who have spent their entire careers in Hong Kong.”

One HKU academic told University World News the focus should not just be on mainland faculty but also on why so many Hong Kong academics are departing. “I also know several Hong Kong colleagues from different universities in Hong Kong who are on extended ‘sabbaticals’ – up to three years, in some cases,” he said.

Hong Kong talent scheme attractive to mainlanders

Hong Kong’s ‘top talent’ scheme to recruit graduates from the world’s top 100 universities was initiated last year to counter a ‘brain drain’ which saw a net outflow of 60,000 Hong Kong residents in 2022. The vast majority of those approved for top talent visas are mainland Chinese, who make up 95% of the 12,000 so far granted two-year work visas under the scheme, according to Hong Kong government figures released last month.

However, Hong Kong authorities were forced to revoke the pass of He Jiankui, a controversial mainland scientist who served a prison sentence for medical malpractice in China related to his work creating the world’s first gene-edited babies in 2018 using CRISPR technology.

Released from jail in China in April 2022 after serving a three-year term, Jiankui received a ‘top talent’ visa and had contacted several Hong Kong universities about research collaboration before his talent visa issued in February was revoked after an outcry.

The Hong Kong authorities have said they would not stick to the top 100 universities for mainland talent applying under the scheme but would also consider applicants’ other qualifications and experience.