Chapter 29: The Pursuit of Excellence

29.1 We began paragraph 27 of our Interim Report with the sentence : "There is no such thing as an excellent university". We stand by that statement. Excellence is necessarily a small-scale quality, achieved, and at its highest levels uncommonly, by small groups or individuals rather than by departments or larger organizations. Nevertheless, it is something to which every member of staff and every grouping in an HEI should aspire, particularly in the area of teaching. A reputation for excellence in research is to some extent a matter of serendipity. It requires the right combination of people, the right facilities, and right state of development of the subject and it requires luck : Fleming's discovery of penicillin is one of the many examples. The output of worthwhile research results from an individual or a group can wax or wane for reasons which are only partially under their control.

29.2 Good teaching does not depend upon luck. It depends upon dedication, a great deal of hard work in preparation, and enthusiasm. But it is what every student in an HEI has a right to expect, and what that student, directly or indirectly, is paying for. Departments which fail to produce good research outputs should be pitied; departments which fail to provide good teaching should be closed.

29.3 No external body can ensure that there will be good teaching within an HEI. Nor can an external body give much guidance as to the ways in which teaching should be carried out. The practical help and intellectual support needed to produce good teaching can come only from colleagues within the institution, and good teachers are enormously varied in their approach to and mode of conveying a particular area of knowledge. Nevertheless, there is a role for external monitoring in the maintenance of teaching quality, most particularly in ensuring that the internal mechanisms for helping and supporting the teachers are in place and functioning and that there is a commitment, formally and informally, and at all levels to good teaching. The UGC has recently devoted a great deal of effort, through its Quality Sub-Committee, to helping its institutions to improve teaching and learning, including the provision of Teaching Development Grants in the 1995-98 triennium. We will continue to press for excellent teaching through Teaching and Learning Quality Process Reviews (see Chapter 17) and in other ways.

29.4 The Grants Committee believes that post-1998 quality assurance of teaching will become an even more important issue. One reason for this is the greater need to design a course for the individual student, to which we referred in paragraphs 25.5, 25.11 and 26.13. Another is the increasing public concern that HEIs, which are funded by the taxpayer, should give good value for the very large investment in them. Few members of the public or their representatives in government would feel able to judge the quality of research, but most of them would believe themselves competent to distinguish between good and indifferent teaching.

29.5 In our Interim Report we offered three possible scenarios for the future of our own institutions. With small modifications those scenarios might also apply to non-UGC HEIs. They were :
  1. the institutions should limit their interests to local student recruitment and the local labour market. Teaching might gradually be given more and more in Cantonese. In time the institutions could become indistinguishable from many similar ones in the neighbouring province;
  2. the institutions should limit their interests to local recruitment and the local labour market, but should make a positive stand on bilingualism. This would require much more effort than is being made at present. Their graduates would be distinguished from those in the hinterland primarily because of their communication skills (including fluency in English) and this would help to maintain Hong Kong's international position; and
  3. the institutions should incorporate centres of excellence having local, regional and international functions. They should provide very high quality bilingual manpower for both Hong Kong and the hinterland and should act as points of reference, particularly in Business and Social Studies and in innovative science and technology for developments in Southern China and more widely. Some undergraduate students and many postgraduate students would be recruited from outside Hong Kong.

We commented : "The first of these options more or less represents a policy of drift. The second requires modest additional resources and, more important, an effort of will on the part of the institutions. The third option is the one favoured by the U(P)GC, since the Committee believes that if Hong Kong is to retain a leading position in the commercial and industrial development of China and the Pacific rim, it will need world-class higher education institutions. The only justification for the additional resources which would be needed for this option is the benefit to Hong Kong itself."

29.6 In our subsequent discussions with government, employers and others who responded to the Interim Report, and with our own institutions, there has been support for the concept of "centres of excellence" (later changed to "areas of excellence" to avoid any implication that they were necessarily physically identifiable centres). As will be clear to those who read our Interim Report, the areas of excellence were not intended to be simply research groups or even engaged in research at all. We placed our major emphasis on the transmission of knowledge through teaching, through contact with industry and commerce, through inter-institutional collaboration and international liaison. Nevertheless, it is likely that at least part of the high reputation of many areas of excellence will stem from research performance.

29.7 It will only be in very rare cases that an area of excellence will be externally generated. It is possible that government or a private sponsor will recognise a teaching or research need of pressing importance to Hong Kong and will both provide physical facilities and recruit staff of international calibre for the purpose. But such a process can be very artificial and examples both in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world have not always been successful. It is much more likely that an area of excellence will arise as a natural growth within an institution, based upon fortunate collaboration between existing staff and possibly colleagues elsewhere, and the availability of resources. As we wrote in our Interim Report : "The creation of centres of excellence is not something which can be done by government or the U(P)GC. They can only be facilitators and motivators. The prime movers must be enthusiastic and committed staff within the institutions, supported by organizational structures which reward initiative and encourage the inter-institutional collaboration (intra and extra Hong Kong) which is essential to high level research and teaching." In its role as an East-West bridge Hong Kong has excellent opportunities for external collaboration.

29.8 It is important that growths of this kind be recognised at a stage where they can be encouraged to reach their full potential by the provision of adequate resources. That encouragement and those resources must come from within the institution itself. One of the purposes of the UGC's increasing devolvement of resource distribution to its institutions is to encourage inequality. It is for the institutions, who alone have the detailed knowledge to do so, to back horses, to encourage excellence and to monitor progress. If the institutions judge wisely, if areas of excellence develop, additional funds will follow, through teaching or research grants, as the result of UGC and RGC assessment exercises, and in other ways. But it is for the institutions themselves to take the initiative, and to back their hunches with their own resources. Only in the most exceptional circumstances will the UGC put money directly into an area of excellence, although it will require additional funds for the indirect support described above.

29.9 In our Interim Report we gave a rough estimate of the cost of the successful development of areas of excellence in UGC institutions - a net increase of 5%. This would, of course, take place slowly, probably over at least the next decade. The justification which we offered for this extra expenditure was benefit to Hong Kong itself. That benefit can only accrue if the progress, knowledge and enthusiasm of those directly involved in the areas of excellence are diffused to others.

29.10 In the Interim Report we expressed part of this as follows : "What we hope to foster within our institutions is a number of excellent groups, recognised internationally as of equal status to their peers in the same subject area, and justifying the investment in state-of-the-art facilities and activity which will maintain them among the world leaders. We hope that a significant proportion of these "centres of excellence" will be working in areas of direct interest to Hong Kong industry, commerce and culture and that their existence will precipitate curriculum development which is also locally and regionally orientated". The diffusion which we need is, however, not confined to those areas of current local relevance. All of our teaching and contacts between academia and the professional, industrial and commercial community should be enthused and informed by the activities in the areas of excellence, so that not merely present but future opportunities can be seized.

29.11 We have in this chapter discussed the pursuit of excellence in both teaching and research and its relevance to the increasingly knowledge-based economy of Hong Kong. The most important contribution which higher education can make to the well-being of Hong Kong is likely to be in the future, as in the past, the production of high quality manpower both through initial qualification and, of growing significance, by through-life education. There is a worldwide perception that many of the beneficiaries of higher education, although they may have excellent mastery of their subject, lack the communication skills which might enable them to make maximum use of their knowledge. The problem is of particular relevance in Hong Kong which, poised between two cultures, needs in the higher levels of its labour force employees who can think and communicate fluently in two (or possibly three) languages. This is the final excellence to which our HEIs need to devote attention post-1998 (and which we have covered more fully in Chapters 18-20): excellent teaching; excellent research; and excellent multilingualism.

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