Chapter 40 : Quality and Quantity

40.1 We have studied various aspects of quality and quantity in Section D of our Review, and in Chapters 29, 30 and 31 of Section F. The concerns which have been expressed over student quality have become more strident even during the period in which this report has been written. They centre on the quality of the matriculant at entry to higher education and the quality of the graduate at exit. The argument often presented to us about matriculants is that "more means worse", and that the standard of the 18% of young people from all sectors of the community entering higher education today is much poorer than that of the 2%, largely from affluent homes, who came in two decades ago.

40.2 We believe this argument to be grossly exaggerated, except in two particulars, although clearly there will be some small diminution in average ability (as measured by HKALE scores) as one moves from a very elite to a broader system. The first matter which seems to us to raise genuine concern is that unpopular subjects may be recruiting very weak entrants to fill their places while more popular subjects are turning good students away. In the longer term this requires a redistribution of resources and staff within institutions, but in the shorter term we wish to make it absolutely clear that the UGC will not withdraw funds because of modest under-recruitment occasioned by maintaining quality. This seems to be understood at institutional level, but it is a message which must be conveyed to departments.

40.3 The second genuine worry is over the language skills of matriculants. This is ultimately a matter for the schools and new initiatives are being introduced as a result of ECR6, but we believe that the tertiary institutions should send very clear signals that they will not admit matriculants who fail to satisfy their published language requirements.

40.4 Having accepted a student, the responsibility for the quality of the graduate must rest with the higher education institution. All of those concerned with funding higher education are doing a great deal at present to ensure that there are mechanisms in place to monitor and aid teaching, but the real guarantor is not an appropriate bureaucracy (although that can be helpful), but commitment and participation by senior staff. Professors who teach undergraduates with enthusiasm, rather than passing the chore down to teaching assistants and graduate students so that the senior staff can get on with their research, are the real determiners of graduate quality.

40.5 The main complaints made to us by employers about graduates are not, however, concerned with subject knowledge. They relate to a lack of social skill, and a lack of communication skill. We believe that the first is at least in part produced by inadequate opportunity to take part in extracurricular activities, itself influenced by poor or no chance to reside on campus. We are pressing government on this issue. The lack of communication skill is linked to, although not wholly determined by, inadequate dexterity with language.

40.6 HEIs are offering remedial courses and self-study opportunities to help students improve their language skills. We do not believe, however, that students will take the language issue with sufficient seriousness until institutions introduce testing and record students' performance on their academic certificates.

40.7 Although we have been emphatic about the importance of teaching quality, the UGC is also much interested in the quality of research. The signs here are encouraging. The quantity of research undertaken in Hong Kong has increased in recent years but so, in part due to the influence of the RGC, has its quality. We have given examples of some of this work in Chapter 13. The difficulty in making the step from good to world-class research should not be underestimated, nor should the achievement of those teams and individuals in Hong Kong's HEIs which have done so.

40.8 Quantity, as we have seen earlier in this chapter, is in many people's minds linked with quality. It is also, however, linked with supply from the schools and the demands of the labour market, topics covered in Chapters 30 and 31. If we continue with present intakes, the predictions of Education and Manpower Branch are that there will be a surplus of 10% of degree holders in the labour force in 2001 and a surplus of 4% of holders of sub-degree qualifications. There are, however, many caveats about these figures, as we noted in Chapter 30. Whether we can continue with present intakes from the schools is itself a matter of some controversy, but our inclination is to leave FYFD enrolments in UGC institutions at 14,500 throughout the 1998-2001 triennium, with as at present, the opportunity to recruit 2% non-Hong Kong students paying standard fees outside target numbers and, additionally, a further 2% within target numbers. This figure of 14,500 will have to include all extra demands from government, including enrolment at HKIEd. Outside the UGC HEIs, there will be some growth in full-time undergraduate recruitment by the APA. Part-time undergraduate numbers may well continue to rise over the next few years (and subsequently decline), but their demand on public funds is slight and is likely to remain so even if our sympathetic view towards them (see paragraph 24.9) is accepted.

40.9 We have received very conflicting evidence about sub-degree places. On balance, we think that a small increase would be desirable, but would be difficult to achieve. We therefore propose that intakes to both UGC and VTC HEIs should remain at current levels, but that the situation should be kept under review.

40.10 At the postgraduate level we propose a small increase in taught postgraduate numbers, partly to accommodate the needs of HKIEd, and a standstill on research students (although with an opportunity to recruit more of them from outside Hong Kong). CPE students will undoubtedly continue to grow, but our only funding interest here (Chapter 24) is in more rational financing.

40.11 The picture that we have painted for the next few years is (with the exception of part-time undergraduate courses and CPE) one of little or no growth. This does not, however, imply little or no change. There will be shifts in subject balance both in teaching and research (in part due to the development of areas of excellence), some of it of sufficient magnitude to be uncomfortable for individual institutions. It will be more important than ever that as well as studying quantity they also pay heed to quality.

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