Chapter 16: The Cultural Climate

16.1 Although higher education in Hong Kong shares many characteristics with its counterparts worldwide, it differs from them in two important particulars. First, the attitudes of the participants stem from two very different traditions. From its English background (we mean English, not British) Hong Kong higher education derives suspicion of an intelligentsia even among the intelligent, a belief in pragmatism rather than abstraction, an almost complete separation of arts and science, and a total rejection of state authority while remaining in practice closely linked to the establishment. From its Chinese background it derives a deep reverence for learning, a predilection for the integration of knowledge and a delight in formal reasoning, all coupled with a belief that higher education is an essential path to career progression. Second, the transition from elitist to mass education and the increase in research activities within HEIs, changes which have taken decades or even centuries elsewhere, have happened in a few recent years in Hong Kong, and the effects are both sharper and somewhat different from those in other places.

16.2 One strand common to both the Chinese and the English tradition is the importance given to the personal interaction between teacher and pupil. Teaching and to a lesser extent learning were until recently the fundamental basis of higher education in Hong Kong, but that situation has changed with the current emphasis given to research. We are convinced that the government and the UGC were right to encourage more of a research culture in the HEIs in Hong Kong, and we believe that the competitive allocation of research funds and the formal assessment of research output are in themselves laudable. But this should be regarded as a valuable companion to good teaching and learning, not as a substitute for it. The problem is possibly aggravated in Hong Kong by very rapid expansion and our thus having a high proportion of young staff, who may feel that their career prospects are more dependent upon their research publications than their teaching skills. The UGC, and other advisory bodies, have set up mechanisms to try to ensure the continuation and enhancement of good teaching and learning. They are described in the following chapter.

16.3 A world wide concern which has arisen in recent years in many universities stemming from the Anglo-American tradition is that graduates currently being produced may be knowledgeable about their subjects, but cannot communicate that knowledge or their enthusiasm for it to others. In Hong Kong, the need for most students to learn their subjects in a second (if not foreign) language has greatly accentuated the problems. The UGC's own experience on visits to HEIs in Hong Kong is that the capacity for communication among students is remarkably varied and that the same is also true of some of the staff.

16.4 A necessary element in good communication (although only part of it) is facility with language. Hong Kong has a particular problem here, where fluency in both Chinese and English is desirable but rarely attained, except possibly in spoken Cantonese. There is also an increasing need for competence in Putonghua. The UGC has been sufficiently unhappy with the language skills of recent graduates from its own HEIs to set in train remedial and enhancement measures. These are discussed in Chapter 20, together with initiatives by other advisory bodies. The problems of language proficiency at all stages of education - primary, secondary and tertiary - have, of course, exercised the Education Commission since its first report in 1984 and are the sole subject of its recently published sixth report (ECR 6).

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