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Shrubs and trees herald the coming of the spring: students, teachers, alumni, unsung heroes and I
Since my appointment at CityU in May 2008, I have come into contact with a good number of people working either at CityU or elsewhere. Many of these come from the grass-root level. What follows is a collection of articles recording my contact with CityU's students, teachers, alumni and other people who deserve to be called unsung heroes. Rather than formal essays, these are butrandom thoughts of mine. As Zhang Shi, a scholar in the Southern Song Dynasty, describes in his poem Random Thoughts about the Arrival of Spring:
At the turn of the year, snow is thawing,
As the shrubs and trees herald the coming of the spring.
There is life in all that meets the eye,
The water, green with vegetation, ripples in the spring breeze.
My articles are about trivial things, but like the plants in the poem, I hope they will presage bigger and brighter things to come.
The school administration I have in mind should turn CityU into an advanced contemporary university. In other words, it should be a place with full academic freedom that puts learning above all else. Everyone is held accountable for their assigned duty. In this respect, CityU still has a long way to go. This may be attributable to the larger environment of Hong Kong, where things are judged either from a political or financial point of view. As a result, many people simply cast aside the mission a university is supposed to serve, with the result that the right attitude of addressing the issues for what they are is simply lacking within the walls of the university.
At the invitation of Ming Pao Monthly at the end of 2012, I wrote an article entitled "The Prospect of Hong Kong Higher Education in the Context of Internationalisation," based on my experience and reflections in my four and half years in Hong Kong. The article came out in the February 2013 special issue of this magazine. The article is reprinted here, to be followed by accounts of some of the people and incidents I have come across. To various degrees, these reflections of mine, based as they are on my communications with people on campus and elsewhere, are related to the development and current situation of CityU and Hong Kong's higher education.
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The prospect of Hong Kong's higher education in the context of internationalisation
The year of 2012 marked a watershed in the development of Hong Kong's higher education. The former English 3-year undergraduate curriculum was replaced by the American 4-year curriculum, which the Chinese University of Hong Kong once adopted. We can foresee the future consolidation and diversified development of teaching and research in Hong Kong's universities.
Much as a university should attach importance to a broad vision, it should emphasise the outcome of education. In keeping with the development of local society and economy, it should fulfill its social responsibility duty by making pioneering breakthroughs and creating its unique advantages. A university is the cradle for talented people and an important base of research and innovation. In addition to their teaching, university teachers should therefore carry out problem-driven research and update their knowledge in keeping abreast with the times.
The year of 2013 will witness more complicated challenges, such as energy shortage, environmental pollution, ageing population, sustainable development and global political and economic instability. To take on these challenges, the teaching and research staff of various universities in different places should join hands in interdisciplinary research. Nevertheless, have university teachers devoted adequate effort to the teaching and research of these relevant issues, or to the guidance of their students? Has our society, including the media, cooperated with universities on these issues and made concerted effort to appraise the results of Hong Kong's higher education?
In the past 20 years, Hong Kong's higher education has made marked progress. But in practice, we have a long way to go to achieve the goal of "integrating teaching and research". Many people may not even know what it means.
The traditional way of looking at this issue is to keep teaching and research separated, or even regards them as at odds with each other. Learning without thinking is futile; thinking without learning is perilous. With the rapid advance of the times, if teaching is not supported by research, with the result that teaching materials become outdated, students will notice it right away. A researcher who does not teach or a teacher who fails to benefit the students because of his outdated knowledge are equally at fault. As in any profession in the world, a teacher must upgrade himself/herself by bolstering the overall strength of academic research and classroom teaching and by observing international practices in these areas. "Integrating teaching and research" is a universal principle guiding the practice of modern universities.
By international standards, the hardware of Hong Kong's universities is adequate. Due attention has also been paid to their software and resources. However, there is much room for improvement in the "human factor". In campus management and academic culture, improvements still needs to be made in injecting innovative thinking in the ways things are done.
The success of higher education rests on the high standards it adopts. We should take the best as our model, judge a matter on its own grounds and lead society in accordance with these principles. "Accountability" is a code of conduct in modern times which applies not only to a certain social stratum, but also to every individual person and unit. Compared with advanced western countries, our university community is in great need of multiculturalism. There is a great need to do away with discrimination and prejudice in sex, age, religion, race and social origin. In the present-day society there is too much talk, but little action.
In our pursuit of excellence, we must rely on the performance of diligent teaching and research. There is no short cut. Resource is a realistic problem that today's higher education has to confront. A typical state university in the US receives from the government less than 20% of its budget. At present, a university in Hong Kong usually gets from the government about 55% of its budget. The cost of teaching and research is on the rise, while the proportion of government's funding in the university's budget decreases year by year. This is the same all over the world. In order to use resources in a flexible way and thereby reflect the values of society, the Hong Kong government delinked the salary of the university faculty and staff from that of civil servants in 2003. Compared with the neighboring countries and regions, Hong Kong's higher education is undergoing transformation. To seek sufficient resources will become, sooner or later, a real challenge all the universities must face.
Teaching and research in a university is a profession. The essence of university self-government can be summarised in this way: respect professional administration under the present system, and allow those who are engaged in teaching and research to take charge of their work. As far as this is concerned, Hong Kong's higher education has a long way to go. From the strategic point of view, only by introducing benevolent competition, can we inject a new momentum to the development of Hong Kong's higher education. And only in this way can we put into practice the modern system of accountability and contribute to the contemporary society.
This article is originally published in Chinese in Ming Pao Monthly (February 2013).
January 28, 2013