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Chapter 43 : Conclusions

Readers who have struggled through our lengthy report will, we hope, have reached at least three general conclusions for themselves: first, the higher education system in Hong Kong has a rich diversity and can cater for almost any learning need of any student, whatever their age or background; second, the higher education institutions are well provided with modern facilities and, more importantly, are places of intellectual vigour and rigour; and third, none of this happened by accident - the present health of our higher education is due to unstinting work over many years by academic staff, by students, by administrators and by all those individuals in government and the community who have believed that high quality and successful tertiary education is a key to a high quality and successful Hong Kong.

We now turn to our detailed conclusions which are divided into twelve broad categories. Some contain suggestions or advice which falls short of a formal recommendation.

The structure of higher education

  1. The present division of responsibility for planning and funding and accountability between government, its advisory bodies, and the subvented institutions seems to us to work well. It is founded in small part on formal relationships, but very largely on mutual trust.

  2. The private sector of higher education is necessarily more market driven. It occupies, in the main, fairly specialist niches and our study has suggested that within those the private sector does a very good job.

  3. We take very much for granted in Hong Kong an adherence to institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and they have served us well in the past. These are not absolutes - there are restrictions - and their survival depends as much on pragmatic considerations of efficiency as on moral and ethical arguments. Nevertheless there is a strong "hands off" element in the relations between government (directly or indirectly through the advisory bodies) and the HEIs. It is important to maintain it.

Entry to HE

  1. Entry to Higher Education at present represents an educational discontinuity to many students. Modes of learning and expectations of competence may be quite different from those at school. Secondary and tertiary teachers need to work together to make this transition smoother.

  2. Institutions need to be flexible in their course offerings to meet student choice of subject. This will be more difficult within static overall numbers than it was during expansion. Currently, Business Studies is the most popular area but some specialisms within Physical Sciences and Engineering have difficulty in recruiting.

  3. We have few worries about the overall balance of social class or sex among students but there could be beneficial changes in some areas. At undergraduate and sub-degree levels, only about one-third of the scientists and one fifth of the engineers are women, compared with a preponderance of female students reading Business Studies, Mathematics and Social Science

  4. Many of the learning difficulties which students experience are related to inadequate language competence, particularly in English. Institutions should be more rigorous in enforcing their entry requirements in this respect.

  5. More generally, institutions should not admit underqualified students in order to fill places. The UGC will not penalise institutions financially for modest under-enrolment in order to maintain quality.

  6. After some initial difficulties and some modifications, both the JUPAS and JASPIC systems of admission procedure seem to be working well.

The Learning Environment

  1. For young people who are full-time students we remain committed to the "campus" university. Indeed we hope to improve it by the provision of more student residences and have recommended to government that the present planned number of hostel places should be increased by 150%. Although it seems likely that many of the subject-specific aspects of learning may in future be available by electronic means which could be received anywhere, the elements of education which employers value most highly - social and communication skills - require a physical presence on campus and interaction with students and staff.

  2. The richness and variety of library type provision on a campus, and the availability of staff to help the tyro in its use, is also important in "learning how to learn", perhaps the most significant skill which higher education can bestow. We see increasing opportunity here, through IT, in tailoring courses to the needs of the individual student, although there will be investment costs. IT will also, of course, enable much of the facility of the campus library to be available off-campus.

  3. For some full-time courses, practical training or experience is needed in a learning environment. There are subjects where better collaboration is required between HEIs and employers both in Hong Kong and south China to ensure an adequate number of places and appropriate instruction.

  4. The current three year full-time undergraduate curriculum is matched to the Hong Kong school system and any proposals for change should consider the whole entity. Since this has only recently stabilised in its present form, the UGC is not in favour of alteration in the near future. Even apart from this consideration, the three year course seems at present to provide a satisfactory experience of both the general and specific offerings of higher education for the majority of students, although in some subjects longer courses are necessary.

  5. For part-time students, many of whom are in employment, flexibility and ease of learning may be more important than a campus environment, and IT offers increasing opportunities. Nevertheless, there are factors such as poor home study conditions or access to laboratory facilities which suggest some continuing institutional provision.

Teaching

  1. We believe that the most important task of the higher education system, at all levels and in all modes, is the enrichment of the understanding of the student, for the benefit both of the individual and society. It follows that the provision of high quality teaching must be the first function of every institution.

  2. The UGC and HKCAA have done a great deal of work recently on teaching quality, much of it concerned with process - ensuring that institutions have appropriate internal mechanisms to encourage and monitor good courses, although quality as such has also entered into discussions with the institutions. Process itself, however, is not enough. Commitment and participation by staff at all levels is equally important, and leadership by senior staff is vital.

  3. The UGC has not hitherto attempted to assess formally the quality of teaching, but the Committee does not preclude the possibility of removing student numbers (and funding) from institutions which it believes are inadequate in their teaching provision.

  4. The ending of overall expansion means that change in teaching provision in future will require some courses to contract or vanish so that others can grow. This may well lead to uncomfortable re-adjustments of resources. It is very important in this situation that managements pay heed to quality as well as quantity.

  5. Taught postgraduate courses have grown very markedly in recent years. We expect that this growth will continue, but in areas where private, rather than public, funding would be appropriate. Some taught postgraduate courses clearly have a continuing function but others serve only topical needs and should have a limited life. Linked to this latter point is a concern of the UGC about uneconomic courses with too few students. We have given appropriate advice to our institutions.

Research

  1. Hong Kong has lagged behind other Pacific territories in conducting its own research and development. Even today, the interest shown by employers (other than those in academia) in recruiting staff with formal research qualifications such as a PhD is small. This may change as we move to higher technology and high value added industries and sciences.

  2. Within the HEIs, there has been a recent and rapid growth in research, mainly due to government initiative but also, in the case of the UGC institutions, the introduction of an overt funding model in which grant depends upon research performance.

  3. There is evidence now of a flourishing research culture in the higher education sector. It is important that this is sustained at at least its present level financially, since competition for research grants is already at a point where good projects are not being supported. The institutions need the resources to develop areas of excellence and, for a few teams or individuals, to move from good to world-class research.

  4. Research in HEIs in Hong Kong should in future fulfill three overall requirements : participation in mainstream worldwide topics which are advancing fundamental knowledge; symbiosis in research with industry, commerce and government, and local culture and society; and collaborative work relevant to the region. Collaboration between the HEIs should be encouraged.

  5. We believe that our research would benefit from a greater diversity in its labour force. Our HEIs do not at present need more research students, but more post-doctoral fellows and secondees from outside higher education would improve breadth and quality.

CPE

  1. Continuing and Professional Education already accounts for more than a quarter of the fte students in higher education and is growing. Current provision is about half by subvented institutions and half by private suppliers including professional associations, specialist colleges and in-house by employers.

  2. CPE has made a major contribution to the change in Hong Kong from manufacturing to service industries and is indeed more effective in facilitating career moves than job changes or improvement of performance.

  3. In Hong Kong's new knowledge-based economy, there is an increasing demand for professional and targetted CPE leading to recognised qualifications for different groups of students. There is some evidence, however, that we also need to develop CPE devoted to social and life skills, and to non-vocational interests. Both types of CPE should be encouraged.

  4. The growth in demand for CPE is not confined to Hong Kong. There is a similar need throughout the region, with great opportunities for our HEIs and private providers to help to satisfy it.

Language

  1. One of the advantages which products of the Hong Kong higher education system may hope to have is multi-lingualism. There is, however, deep concern expressed from many sources - the Education Commission, employers, the press - that that advantage (of vital importance to Hong Kong in its roles of an East-West bridge and a window from China to the world) is being lost.

  2. In particular, the standard of English of many students leaving school and entering higher education is felt to be inadequate and employers are dissatisfied with the competence in English of those whom they recruit.

  3. In the longer term, remedying this deficiency is a matter for the schools, but HEIs are culpable when they fail to convey the importance of language skills. In past years, some weak students have been allowed to "scrape through" - recruited with minimal or sub-minimal grades and at no point in their course failed because of language incompetence.

  4. The remedial work being done by institutions, some of it specially funded by the UGC, is valuable but needs to be extended, including substantial use of vacation time.

  5. Most important of all, HEIs should refuse to admit students who do not satisfy appropriate language criteria, and should test language competence and record it on certificates of subject qualification.

Quality

  1. An overall factor which contributes greatly to the quality of the Hong Kong higher education system is its diversity. As well as the major subvented institutions and the OLI there are many commercial and charitable private colleges, courses run by professional and trade associations and contributions of various kinds from overseas. Almost any student need can be satisfied, and the student usually has a choice of competing providers.

  2. We believe that this diversity of role, mode and market must be maintained and developed, and as far as our own institutions are concerned we would encourage variety of mission.

  3. Although the move to a much larger participation rate may dilute the intellectual quality of students in higher education slightly, we believe that overall quality remains high. Complaints made to us by employers about recent graduates have not related to their intellectual ability, but to their social and communicative skills.

  4. We remain committed to the concept of areas of excellence which we introduced in our Interim Report. They may be concerned with any or all of the excellences which we believe are important - in teaching, in research and in multilingualism - and we would expect them to have local, regional and international functions. The existence of an area of excellence has quality-enhancing effects elsewhere in the institution.

  5. We do not believe that our overt introduction of funding based upon uniform costs is a bar to quality. Our institutions are still given a block grant and have plenty of scope within it to deploy money in ways which they see as leading to excellence.

  6. The physical plant and human resources of the UGC institutions are at present in good condition. Half of the buildings are less than six years old and half of the larger items of equipment less than two. The academic staff recruited during the recent expansion were mostly very young and the median age is now 43. It is important that our institutions have proper maintenance and replacement schemes. In the past they relied on UGC rescue operations to maintain quality. These will not be available in future. However the UGC does propose to retain a central reserve to assist institutions with problems of staff redundancy.

Costs

  1. Unit costs in the UGC institutions have risen in real terms during the recent expansion. The two dominant causes have been an increase in research activity, which we would not wish to see reversed, and a change in student mix towards more expensive areas and higher level courses in order to meet the needs of Hong Kong.

  2. Now that we are entering a period of little or no growth, we see opportunity for savings without sacrifice of quality. These include reaping the benefits of economies of scale and the end of front-end loading, and the trimming of administrations as the tasks associated with expansion no longer have to be performed. There should also be opportunity for refining internal procedures.

  3. We do not see any short-term cost savings due to the introduction of IT. There may indeed be some initial additional expenditure, with potential economies a decade hence.

Fees

  1. In determining what should be funded, we believe that priority should be given to initial qualification, including some help for part-time provision. Much CPE should be self-funding, as should many postgraduate courses.

  2. The present standard student fee, with a government target of an overall cost recovery rate of 18%, is on the limit of what is tolerable with regard to equity between subjects. We would not be averse to some fee differentiation by broad subject grouping at both undergraduate and sub-degree levels, and for some taught postgraduate courses, but not reflecting true cost. Any gain in total fee income could, however, only be slight.

  3. There is much more scope for fee variation in career orientated taught postgraduate courses, where setting fees at higher than the standard rate, possibly up to "full-cost", can result in greater income and should be encouraged.

  4. The UGC strongly supports the government's policy that no qualified student should be denied access to tertiary education through lack of means. Therefore any further tuition fee differentiation (beyond the current position that the indicative fee for sub-degree courses is lower than that for degree courses) should be accompanied by appropriate financial assistance measures including non-means-tested student loans.

Expansion

  1. The massive growth of Hong Kong's higher education system during the quadrennium 1991-95 took place very successfully. Although student numbers increased by 46% and it was necessary to recruit some 3,500 new academic staff, initial worries about diminution of quality proved to be largely groundless, and it was possible to make good appointments.

  2. The 1991-95 expansion was not uniform across disciplines. The changes were, in the main, reflections of longer term trends.

  3. Our studies of both supply and demand during the period up to 2001 (and more speculatively up to 2006) suggest that no further significant expansion of either undergraduate or postgraduate education is required, but neither should there be any contraction. This conclusion should however be kept under review in the light of updated population projections.

  4. The position with regard to sub-degree numbers is less clear cut. Some small further expansion of output may be desirable but possibly difficult to achieve in terms of recruitment. Any increase should be largely in the VTC technical colleges, although CityU and PolyU may have specialist contributions to make.

  5. If government is minded to accede to any of the aspirations of private or charitable colleges to play a more formal role in higher education, further non-industrial sub-degree courses would be their most useful contribution.

The International Dimension

  1. Higher education in Hong Kong is less expensive than in the US and Japan, although more so than in some other countries. The comparisons do, however, need to be treated with caution and related to such factors as purchasing power and the housing market.

  2. Our planning for higher education will need increasingly in future to take account of the "China factor", particularly as the border becomes more permeable to movement of labour, and many contacts and exchanges have already been made. We see both advantages and disadvantages to our graduates, but believe the former outweigh the latter.

  3. More widely, there are great opportunities for Hong Kong to act as a regional centre for both initial and continuing higher education, not just for China but also for other neighbouring countries.

  4. The health and vigour of our HEIs depend on strong international inputs, including the recruitment of staff and research students from outside Hong Kong and participation in joint teaching and research ventures with overseas partners.

  5. While many contacts of our HEIs outside Hong Kong will in future be with China, it is important that they also look elsewhere in the world, including to the Chinese diaspora.



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