Chapter 13: Research Degrees and Research

13.1 Students may take research degrees from a variety of motives, including genuine curiosity, as a precursor to certain types of career (including one in academia) or simply from a desire to enjoy university life for a little longer before entering the supposedly harsher disciplines of the commercial world. University staff enjoy having research students, partly because they are likely to be their intellectual equals, or even superiors, and thus interesting to teach and argue with, and partly because in some disciplines they represent a source of cheap labour, carrying out library searches, abstracting, experiments and other tasks, which may further the research work and career prospects of the supervisor, but are inherently time-consuming. The interest shown by employers (outside academia) in research degrees is small, but with the introduction of high-technology industry to Hong Kong that may well change. Partly because of greater motivation, partly because of more readily available financial support, the number of research students is increasing : we have shown its growth in Figure 6.6 (but see also paragraph 28.3).

13.2 Many of the master's degrees which we discussed in Chapter 12 can be extended to MPhil by the incorporation or addition of a substantial piece of research and the presentation of a thesis. The additional work is usually expected to take from a few months to a year. Other MPhil programmes stand alone or are structured as the preliminary stages of a PhD. In an endeavour to reduce the costs of the preliminary training for PhD research, the science faculties in the institutions have recently introduced a scheme for joint courses. The PhD degree supposedly takes three to four years full-time (the UGC has recommended support for up to four years) or about five to six years part-time. There is however concern in Hong Kong as elsewhere in the world about the length of time taken by some students to complete their PhD. Proposals have been made or action taken in the UK to impose penalties and in the US to offer rewards to encourage swifter PhDs. The work for a PhD is regarded partly as a training in research methodology and partly as an original contribution to knowledge which should be worthy of publication.

13.3 In some scientific and technological areas, because of the existence of specialised and expensive equipment, work for an MPhil or PhD, although original, will form part of a team effort on a particular research topic. In other areas, and most usually in the arts and social sciences, the research student will be working alone. Even here, however, the research which can be pursued will be limited by the facilities available, including library provision. The cost of a research student is not just personal support : it includes a great deal of staff time, particularly that of the supervisor, expensive laboratory and library facilities and consumables, such as chemicals and computer time. It is for this reason that the number of research students is limited not just by demand, but by the UGC as part of its distribution of available resources (although institutions can take additional students if they are privately funded).

13.4 Although the UGC determines the resources available for research students in individual institutions on the basis of their role and mission, the final number is also influenced by two other factors. The Research Grants Council distributes some additional research student numbers (and associated funding) on a competitive basis, and many young academic staff, already in employment, are taking PhDs in their own or other institutions. In 1994-95 the number of fte research students funded by the UGC was as shown in Table 13.1.

Table 13.1 Number of FTE Research Students

Institutions Number of Students
CityU 151
CUHK 797
Poly U 196
HKU 919
Total 2547

These research students divide approximately 60% to MPhil and 40% to PhD (the MPhil is well regarded in Hong Kong). About 65% of the PhDs are in scientific or technological subjects.

13.5 Although research students, for the reasons given in paragraph 13.1, have an important role to play in the conduct of research in some disciplines, there must be pre-existent a corpus of academic staff with both the motivation and the means to search for new knowledge. Until quite recently, the motivation towards research in many of our HEIs was low, and the means, although present, was not specifically identified. As we have explained in paragraph 6.6, attitudes towards research have changed very markedly in the last few years. In addition to the reasons given in that paragraph, an important factor in altering attitudes has been the knowledge that the UGC has introduced a funding model in which part of an institution's block grant depends upon the quantity and quality of research which is conducted there. We shall discuss that model in Section G.

13.6 The Research Grants Council (RGC), to which a number of references have been made in earlier paragraphs, has the principal responsibility for the support of individual research projects in the UGC institutions. Its monies, allocated mainly in response to competitive bids, are added to the base funds for research which are included in the UGC block grant to the institutions. In addition to its task of distributing research grants the RGC has been responsible for the competitive allocation of research student numbers (see paragraph 13.4), again in conjunction with base numbers provided by the UGC. In 1994-95, funding for new research projects through the RGC was HK$245.6m, as compared with HK$217.7m through the UGC. 32% of RGC grants went to engineering, 26% to biological science and medicine, 19% to physical science and 23% to social science, business studies and the humanities. In addition to subventing the RGC, government provides some monies for research in non-UGC institutions but the amounts are very small. Private support for research in the HEIs totalled HK$126.7m in 1994-95.

13.7 As well as adjudicating on applications for grants, the Research Grants Council assesses completed projects. Of the 63 assessed in 1994, eleven were judged as excellent, and of the 57 assessed in 1995, ten. Of the twenty-one projects deemed to have had an excellent outcome in those two years, ten were at CUHK, four at HKU, three at PolyU, two at HKUST and one each at HKBU and CityU. Topics ranged from a database of Han and Pre-Han Literature to control of calcium and phosphorus metabolism in the cultured eel. Most excellent projects were in the physical sciences and engineering, but there were a number in biological areas, management and comprehension and communication. In addition to providing project grants, the RGC has recently started funding Cooperative Research Centres, intended to encourage industrial participation: three have been launched so far. The general impression of the RGC, based on both a local and an international perspective, is that there is a flourishing and growing research culture in Hong Kong.

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