Home > UGC Publications > Speeches and Articles > 2004 > 21st Digby Memorial Lecture - Dr Alice Lam (10.7.2004)

Department of Surgery, The University of Hong Kong - 21st Digby Memorial Lecture

5:30 pm, 10 July 2004

Welcome Speech by Dr Alice Lam,
Chairman of University Grants Committee

Professor Wong, ladies and gentlemen,

First I must thank John Wong for his very kind and generous remarks. You seem to know more about me than I do myself! Well, I now have much to live up to. As Ovid I believe once remarked, "there is no such thing as pure pleasure; some anxiety always goes with it". Well, I feel rather like that today. It is indeed my great pleasure to have the honour of having been invited to speak on the very special occasion of the Digby Memorial Lecture. But at the same time I am filled with more than a little anxiety. So, as far as I am aware, I am the first guest speaker at this event not to have a medical background. This alone gives pause for thought- to say nothing of being aware of being in front of such a distinguished audience.

But then I thought that perhaps, in line with a key policy direction of Hong Kong University to emphasise interdisciplinarity, you might be interested to hear if any of the techniques that I am employing in surgery on the University Grants Committee might have applicability to the medical field. Let me hasten to add that the UGC is not doing any surgery on our eight institutions. All our work with them is done through "friendly persuasion", as a JR Ewing of Dallas fame put it. But to get back to the UGC, we have just embarked upon a fairly major restructuring of our sub-committees. Not to remove any cancerous growths but rather to tackle some benign polyps. Well, I would like to let you know the secret of my techniques, but it would be a shame- and spoil my chances in any forthcoming RAE- if I were to release the results before it appears in a very high rated ISI journal.

Joking aside, I must express my heartfelt gratitude to Prof Wong and the Department of Surgery of the University of Hong Kong for giving me this honourable task to deliver the Digby Memorial Lecture.

Speaking in front of so many knowledgeable people for more than half an hour is indeed a challenge to me, although I was a little comforted after learning that I was allowed to speak on whatever topic I would like. As Chairman of the University Grants Committee, and feeling sure that you are all passionate about the education scene in Hong Kong, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on the major changes that have been taking place in the higher education sector, as well as the opportunities that we must grab in order to keep abreast of the times and put Hong Kong in a more prominent position of the world map of higher education.

Higher education, interpreted in one sense, is for people to acquire an advanced level of knowledge and skills that are necessary to cope with today's complex and ever-changing social environment. As John Hibben once said, "education is the ability to meet life's situations". Indeed, as Alvin Toffler once wrote, "sometimes education is taken as the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism and the commercial world to produce the kind of adults they need. The problem is inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt our young people for a new world - a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions and collective discipline." But to me, higher education certainly goes well beyond that. We should realize and firmly believe that the solution to this complex problem is an education system that, in its very structure, simulates human thinking and ultimately helps shape the new world

Development of Higher Education in Hong Kong

Higher education in Hong Kong has gone through an interesting and dynamic process of evolution. In the early years of the last century, the celebrated HKU was established, symbolizing a new era of education in Hong Kong. It then prospered and grew. In the 1950s, as a result of the influx of refugees from the Mainland and the chaotic situation there, Chinese traditional scholarship and the development of higher level studies in the medium of the Chinese language were emphasized, allowing for university level education for students from the Chinese middle schools in Hong Kong. Coupled with many other changes in the social environment in Hong Kong, the formation of the Chinese University was given a very strong impetus. The Chinese University formally came into being in 1963 following the amalgamation of three post-secondary colleges.

Two years after the establishment of Chinese University, the University Grants Committee, usually abbreviated to the UGC, was born to take up the funding and monitoring role for the two universities. As you will note we have gone back to our roots as a UGC, having been a University and Polytechnic Grants Committee (UPGC) for a long period. But I shall come to the detailed role and functions of the UGC later on.

Along with the growth of the two universities, education in Hong Kong was evolving with great diversity. Technical colleges and several other post-secondary education bodies were striving to improve the quality of their academic programmes and provide alternative routes for young people to advance their learning experiences.

The 1980s and 1990s were periods of rapid expansion and upgrading of the entire higher education sector in Hong Kong. In the 80s first Baptist College (as it then was) came under the UPGC umbrella and then City Polytechnic was established. First year first degree places expanded from 2,400 in 1979/80 to 7,500 in 1989/90. The early part of the 1990s saw a rapid expansion of the UGC-funded sector. First-year-first-degree places increased from 7,500 in 1989/90 to 14,500 in 1994/95 - equivalent to 9% and 18% respectively of the relevant age group, primarily with the establishment of HKUST but also with overall expansion. Since the 1995-98 triennium, the tertiary sector has entered a consolidation phase with the first-year-first-degree places remaining at 14,500.

In addition to the expansion of student numbers, funding for research and research grant projects has also increased substantially in recent years. Research postgraduate places increased from a very low of about 300 in 1979/80 to over 4,300 in 2003/04. Following the establishment of the Research Grants Council in 1991/92, funding channeled through the Council has increased significantly from HK$100 million to approximately HK$570 million in 2003/04. But neither the RPg number nor the RGC funding is ideal yet, as I am sure you will agree.

The technical and post-secondary colleges that I mentioned earlier also went through monumental stages of development in the last decade of the twentieth century. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong, Lingnan University and Hong Kong Baptist University, which are all members of the UGC family, took significant steps forward in the 1990s by obtaining self-accrediting status and university title. Such changes carried a lot of meaning not only to these institutions themselves, but also to the sector as a whole. The change was a sign of the maturity of Hong Kong in its development of higher education. It was also a clear indication that our community was following closely the world trend of becoming a knowledge-based economy.

The 1990s was also a period of new initiatives and developments. A shinning example was the opening of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 1991, following a special review of the need for a new university. There was also the establishment of The Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) in 1994, which emerged through the merger of four colleges of education and the Institute of Language in Education, previously under the supervision of the then Education Department. A congratulatory remark here I would like to make is that the HKIEd now also enjoys the self-accrediting status- since May this year.

Beyond the UGC sector, there is a number of higher education providers in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, for example, offers degrees, diplomas and certificates in dance, drama, music, technical arts, etc. and is directly funded by the Government. The Open University of Hong Kong, the HKSAR's principal distance learning institution, was established by the Government in 1989 and received initial public funding support. Now the institution operates on a self-financing basis. Other post-secondary education providers in the non-Government sector include Shue Yan College, Chu Hai College and Caritas Francis Hsu College, etc. And of course the Vocational Training Council does a great deal of excellent work.

Which conveniently brings me to the sub-degree sector, which has also experienced significant changes in recent years. In his 2000 Policy Address, the Chief Executive announced a Government initiative progressively to increase post-secondary education opportunities, with the objective that 60% of Hong Kong's senior secondary school leavers would be able to receive post-secondary education by 2010. This will mean a big and very welcome jump in the number of people who can obtain associate degree and equivalent qualifications. The government has recognised this by planning to provide additional funding in the 2005-08 triennium for the UGC-funded institutions to create about 840 additional student places at the senior undergraduate level to provide articulation opportunities for these students.


The eight institutions under the purview of the UGC all had different backgrounds, and they followed different paths. Yet, they are all highly independent bodies with their own governing councils and ordinances. They enjoy a high degree of autonomy in their educational provisions and academic freedom. This was no accident and was also one of the key considerations that led to the initial establishment of the UGC.

Originally formed in 1965, the UGC was appointed by the Governor and is now appointed by the Chief Executive. Its main function is to offer impartial and expert advice to the Government on the development and funding of higher education in Hong Kong, and to provide assurance to the Government and the community on the standards and cost-effectiveness of the operations and activities of the UGC-funded institutions. It has no statutory powers. Specifically, the Committee determines precise grant recommendations having regard to the level of funding available, overall student number targets as agreed with the Government, and the academic programmes as proposed by the institutions. The Committee also provides the institutions with developmental and academic advice, drawing on the expertise and experience of its members. Importantly it also monitors the performance of the institutions and promotes higher standards. Half of the UGC members are accomplished academics and higher education administrators from outside Hong Kong. The other half are local members, comprising eminent community leaders and academics of high standing.

The institutions have substantial freedom in the control of curricula and academic standards, the selection of staff and students and the internal allocation of resources. Nevertheless, because the institutions are very largely supported by public funds and in view of the importance of higher education, the Government and the community at large have a legitimate interest in the operation of the institutions to ensure that they are providing the highest possible standards of education in the most cost-effective manner. In this respect, the UGC acts as a "buffer", safeguarding academic freedom and autonomy of the institutions on the one hand, while ensuring value for money for the taxpayers on the other.

Apart from being a buffer, there is also a key component in the terms of reference of the UGC that it has a role of advising the Government on the developmental needs of the higher education sector and the institutions therein. In the mid-1990s, in light of the rapid expansion of the sector, the UGC, for the first time, took a closer look at the overall development of higher education in a rather comprehensive manner. However, the drastic changes in the social and economic situation in Hong Kong in the latter part of the 1990s called for another fresh look at the various aspects of higher education in Hong Kong.

Higher Education Review

After I assumed the Chairmanship in 1999, the UGC planned another comprehensive review of the sector, aiming to outline a visionary blueprint for the future landscape of the higher education sector. The Higher Education Review was commenced in 2001, looking at how the higher education sector should position itself in assisting Hong Kong in the transformation into a knowledge-based economy. To this end, the Review took into account the Administration's declared strategic intent to increase the participation rate to 60% for the relevant age group by the year 2010, and the relevant reform proposals recommended by the Education Commission.

The HER final recommendations set out a broad strategic direction for the further development of higher education in Hong Kong. I shall elaborate a few major points in the next couple of minutes.

Our experience drawn from the HER is that in all developed communities, the shape of the community will significantly determine the future shape of universities. Equally, the shape of its universities will partly determine the community's future. The reason for this is that in all developed societies, the future depends upon harnessing knowledge to define the cultural vision, and creating and responding to economic opportunity. Hong Kong is no exception.

In conducting the HER, we also reaffirmed that the ambition for Hong Kong to be Asia's world city is a worthy one, but there is no doubt that realization of that vision is only possible if it is based upon the platform of a very strong education and a strong higher education sector. To be successful Hong Kong needs both a strong cultural identity and a strong economy. These are different but related needs. The former concerns how Hong Kong sees itself and its future, the latter concerns the creation of wealth and economic growth. Universities have an essential role in the fulfillment of both.

The HER also pointed out that the core functions of teaching and research will be drivers of economic opportunity: first in providing the type of educated workforce which is the pre-condition of a successful knowledge-based economy; and second in ensuring that doors to the understanding and exploitation of the ways in which our knowledge and understanding of human beings, of human societies and of the world in which we live, are constantly being extended.

Follow-up on HER

Nevertheless, our work in steering the strategic development of Hong Kong's higher education sector did not stop at the milestone of completing the HER. The fundamental values and broad directions set out in the HER were widely shared by the academia and other sectors of the community. But for our higher education sector to develop in practical terms, we needed a clear roadmap.

In drawing up such a roadmap, there were two important and inseparable considerations that the UGC had taken into account: first, we need to have a more in-depth understanding of our current position, by that I do not just mean our needs, but also the new opportunities that are in front of us; the second major consideration was how we should best position our higher education sector in the local community, the wider region of Asia-Pacific as well as the international arena.

Earlier on I gave you an overview of the development of higher education in Hong Kong, with particular emphasis on the UGC sector. It would not be a surprise to anybody that under such a diverse background of development, the first and foremost concern of a central coordinating body like the UGC is how well all these institutions are, or indeed should be, integrating into a single effective system.

Hong Kong is a small geographical place, and it is easier to generate the effect of economy of scale. But conversely, it is difficult to achieve critical mass and hence international excellence- the more so if there is excessive duplication of resources and efforts. This is particularly an issue that warrants attention in the face of budget stringency of the Government. Here I would like to emphasize that I am not suggesting in any sense that eight institutions under the UGC are too many. We have a population of 7 million and the participation rate of the age group of 17-21 at the undergraduate level is only about 18%, which does not suggest "too many" at all as compared with many other well-developed countries or territories in other parts of the world.

However, I would think that with or without the budget stringency, it is always the UGC's and institutions' responsibility to ensure effective use of public funding in order to achieve the greatest possible impact on the growth and development of the higher education sector. In the past decade or so, we have not seen sufficient collaboration among institutions in their respective efforts in achieving academic excellence, which has deprived them of a lot of opportunities to lift the critical mass in many areas.

Needs of and Opportunities for Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a strategic location for trade and various kinds of academic and economic activities. The territory is ideally situated to serve as a logistics hub into and out of South China and East Asia. It is within five hours flying time of more than half of the world's population. The higher education system also needs to recognize and take up the challenge of the mutually beneficial relationship among Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta and Mainland China - again an issue well flagged in the HER. Since the issue of the HER report, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) has been signed and brought into force and the Chief Executive in his 2003 and 2004 Policy Addresses has stated very clearly the policy goal of broader and deeper collaboration with the Mainland across all fronts - including education. Such deeper collaboration calls for a mature higher education sector in Hong Kong. It also calls for a sector which produces graduates who are highly employable, mobile and versatile and who are keen to improve themselves continuously.

Academic exchange between Hong Kong and Mainland China can play a significant role in knowledge exchange between the two places. Hong Kong can and should play a facilitating role in linking the Mainland and the world at large. To do this, Hong Kong requires graduates who are culturally sensitive to the developments in the Mainland - and this is best achieved if they are educated here in local institutions. We foresee a significant increase in the non-local student population, a large proportion of whom will come from the Mainland. Our higher education sector, which is internationalized, will provide Mainland students with a valuable international perspective. The academic and economic value of a significant increase in cross-border institutional activity could be huge. If our institutions are alert and nimble, there is synergy and mutual enhancement to be garnered.

The UGC sector has also become increasingly aware of opportunities to engage internationally, and this is reflected in a range of developments. There is an increasing number of exchange programmes with counterpart institutions beyond the HKSAR. Furthermore, the Education and Manpower Bureau has relaxed the admission quotas for non-local students to provide more flexibility for UGC-funded institutions. Non-local students bring significant benefits to both local students and the institutions and, in recognition of such benefits, the UGC has provided for an expansion of student exchange activities at the undergraduate level. The international search for high quality faculty members has been particularly strong in the past decade. A wide range of academic cooperative efforts is taking place between Hong Kong institutions and those in the Mainland and other parts of the world. All these factors have better positioned Hong Kong to compete globally in the academic arena.

The Position of Hong Kong

As the Chief Executive put it in his 2004 Policy Address: "we are promoting Hong Kong as Asia's world city, on par with the role that New York plays in North America and London in Europe." The UGC shares this identity and shares the vision of the Secretary for Education and Manpower that the Hong Kong higher education sector should aspire to make Hong Kong "the education hub of the region". The UGC believes that Hong Kong can fulfill this vision, given its strong links with Mainland China, its geographical location, its internationalized and vibrant higher education sector, and its very cosmopolitan outlook. All these give Hong Kong a strong competitive edge over its competitors in the region.

Asia is up and coming on the world stage. It will become a key presence on the world map of higher education, and will be an attractive destination for both students and faculty. In time, if internationally-competitive centres of excellence with critical mass can be built up in Hong Kong, given the rise of Asia, they will become magnets - like the great centres in the USA and UK.

Understanding the needs of Hong Kong, the opportunities we have in front of us and our aspirations, we should now be able to outline a clear vision for higher education in Hong Kong -

  • First, we consider that Hong Kong is able to serve as 'the education hub of the region', driving forward the economic and social development of Hong Kong, in the context of our unique relationship with Mainland China and the region;

  • Secondly, we see the need to develop an interlocking system where the whole higher education sector is viewed as one force, with each institution fulfilling a unique role, based on its strengths; and

  • Finally, we should aim to promote "international competitiveness" where it occurs in institutions, understanding that all will contribute to this endeavour and that some institutions will have more internationally competitive centres than others.

Now, the question for the UGC - and the community - is how to realize that vision in practical terms.

Role Differentiation

The UGC considers that public resources should be focused on areas of excellence where they appear in institutions across the whole sector. This recognizes that all the institutions in Hong Kong have their own unique strengths in which they can aspire to "international competitiveness". It also recognizes that research intensive institutions will have more areas of international competitiveness than others and will naturally attract more public resources. Such public resources will, however, need to be very carefully targeted, so as not to dilute the effect. It also recognizes that research intensive institutions should be able to attract more private funding, for the benefit of themselves and the system. This approach calls upon the UGC to play a more active role in steering the sector. It is important that in such a system, the areas of international competitiveness are closely related to the roles of the institutions. This means that the UGC will need to ensure institutions keep closely to their role.

A major initiative in this respect undertaken by the UGC was revisiting the role statements of the eight institutions in late 2003 more explicitly to spell out their distinctive but complementary roles in the higher education sector. In drawing these up, the UGC has deliberately sought to develop the roles that the institutions have themselves set. Thus, for example, Lingnan University seeks to be an excellent liberal arts institution - and the UGC supports it in that role. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University seeks to emphasize application orientated teaching, professional training and applied research and we support it in that role.

I firmly believe that the UGC's decision to view higher education here as part of "a system" is absolutely right. We can make this a place where the sum is greater than the parts. We must encourage all who are part of higher education (the staff and the students) to realize that they all equally have a vital role to play. I will not say that producing research level students is "better" than producing graduates who have a liberal arts education, any more than I would say that a doctor is more valuable than a software engineer. All are vital if Hong Kong is to succeed. Institutions must be encouraged to fulfil the roles they can blossom in.

Deep Collaboration

Aside from role differentiation, the UGC believes that the level and depth of collaboration and strategic alliances taking place in Hong Kong's higher education system is distinctly sub-optimal, both for individual institutions and for the sector as a whole. It is incumbent on institutions to do much more in this area, not only to improve their quality but also to make the best use of the large amount of public funding made available to the sector. Strategic alliances and deep collaboration among institutions - and with overseas institutions and the wider community - should aim to achieve some major objectives, such as :

  1. enhancing the breadth and depth of teaching quality in academic disciplines to enable a richer and more diverse subject menu to be offered to students;

  2. developing the critical mass required to create centres of research capable of competing at the internationally competitive level; and

  3. creating substantial efficiencies, particularly in the non-academic areas, and hence extra capacity for other pursuits appropriate to roles.

Measures Undertaken by UGC

The UGC is putting in place credible measures to steer the development of the higher education sector along the directions of role differentiation and deep collaboration. They are the major components that will enable the realization of an interlocking yet differentiated higher education system.

Many of you know that the UGC is carrying out a Performance and Role-related Funding Scheme. This initiative will be embedded into the UGC funding methodology for the 2005-08 triennium. This important undertaking will tie together funding allocation, performance - and performance against role - much more rigorously than in the past. The UGC believes it will have a significant effect on the way institutions approach their priorities and reflect on what they are doing.

In March this year, we completed our study on institutional integration. The Working Party formed under the UGC concluded that deep collaboration would most appropriately serve the purposes of lifting critical mass and enhancing competitiveness of the UGC sector as a whole for the time being. We shall encourage institutions to come up with their own initiatives, as we believe that institutional integration will bring about the best results if it is driven by institutions themselves. Nevertheless, there is definitely a crucial and proactive role for the UGC to play in the process. Based on the international experience generated from the study, we are now drawing up our strategy for institutional integration and for the promotion of deep collaborative relationships among institutions within the sector. We have also set up a Restructuring and Collaboration Fund as a more concrete incentive to support institutions' proposals on collaborative activities.

Professor Wong and distinguished guests. I have probably already kept you from your dinner for too long. I hope that my little talk will have imparted in a small way my enthusiasm for higher education in Hong Kong. It is such a vital part of our society. We must have this segment of society if Hong Kong is to flourish. And while it is fine to have some of our brightest taught overseas, what will make Hong Kong is its home grown gradates who take Hong Kong as their home and work to make it the society they want to see. They will become the leaders, the businessmen and women and the academics of tomorrow. That is why I am so passionate about having the best of all areas of endeavour in our system. That is why I am passionate that it is right for each university to aspire to be the best in Asia- and indeed in time in the world- at those areas it has real focus, critical mass and belief. If each university believes in itself- and not in trying to be something else- we shall have a higher education system we can truly be proud of and which will lead Hong Kong into the future.

Thank you.