Chapter 41 : The Shape of Things to Come

41.1 In Section F of our review we discussed the future of higher education. We examined in some detail the structure of full-time undergraduate courses and the modes of teaching which are currently used, and we enquired into ways in which they might change. Much depends upon the relative importance given to the "general" and "specific" benefits which it is hoped to bestow. As we explained in paragraph 40.5, many employers' doubts about the quality of our graduates centre on the first of these.

41.2 We have received a number of suggestions for changing the length of undergraduate courses, mostly for increases although some for decreases. The commonest proposal has been for taking pupils one year earlier from school and offering a four-year undergraduate course. This would require, if it were to be successful, a major upheaval in school education, which has only recently settled down to its present pattern.

41.3 In time, we expect major benefits to accrue to undergraduate education from the IT revolution, but this will be neither sudden nor costless. We no more expect the lecture to disappear overnight than we do the book - something which has been predicted as imminent for at least three decades. Nevertheless, the lecture will benefit by incorporating high quality material from networked sources. More importantly, electronic material will enormously increase the opportunities for self-learning, perhaps eventually to the point where a course can be tailored to the individual pupil.

41.4 It can, of course, be argued that with the increasing richness of material available by electronic means, the campus institution is obsolete. This may be true, at least in part, for certain purposes such as part-time study by those in employment. For the young full-time undergraduate, who needs to acquire social and communicative skills as well as knowledge of a particular subject area, we believe that we should aim to enrich the campus experience, not diminish it.

41.5 There is an expectation (perhaps we should say no more than "a hope") among some of those responsible for funding higher education, that the adoption of IT will lead to "efficiency gains" in full-time undergraduate courses. It is our view that although that hope has some validity, it will need to be sustained for a decade or more before it is realised and that even then the gains will be small. The shorter term effects of embracing the IT revolution will be an increased work-load for academic staff and some additional costs, including substantial capital investment.

41.6 Demand for part-time undergraduate courses, largely by those of older age groups seeking a "second chance", will eventually diminish because of recent increases in "first chance" degrees. However, the institutions offering this part-time opportunity are also heavily engaged in CPE provision, for which demand is growing, so they will not lack work, although their roles will change.

41.7 Sub-degree work is usually overtly vocational, as indeed are a small number of first degree courses. There is a greater reliance on case studies, projects, and practical training including work experience than is the case in most undergraduate work. Some of this can benefit greatly from the introduction of electronic aids. We are, however, aware of increasing difficulty with work placements for students in some areas where practical training on the job is an integral and essential part of the curriculum. Sub-degree courses are a potential growth area, and their training relationship with each relevant employment will need careful fostering if it is not to prove a barrier to development. The palliation here by IT is likely to be limited.

41.8 Taught postgraduate courses will probably continue to grow in the coming years, but we need to distinguish between those which serve a community purpose (for example, providing a teaching qualification) and those which primarily enhance the career prospects of an individual (for example, an MBA). The former group, which justify substantial public funding, will probably not grow markedly except in the area of teacher education. The major growth is likely to be in the latter group, but this should be largely self-funding. Courses which are similar to those in other parts of the world will benefit from networked material : courses which are closely related to Hong Kong are less likely to do so.

41.9 Hong Kong has been slow and sometimes unwilling to engage in research on any substantial scale, both in industry and higher education. It seems to have been argued that research and development were expensive, and their results could be imported. That philosophy is beginning to change within higher education, but it must change within the rest of the economy also. As Hong Kong moves from low-skilled to high-skilled industry and commerce, it needs its own knowledge generation if it is to become a leader. We require for our future success a symbiosis in research between HEIs and industrial and commercial partners, not "ivory tower" activity with the rest of the community passively looking on and reluctantly footing the bill. We hope also to see a greater diversity among the labour force engaged in research in the HEIs. Our HEIs do not at present need more research students, but other workers such as post-doctoral fellows and secondees from commerce, industry or government would help to increase the quality of the activity. We must also be more willing to seek research talent from outside Hong Kong, especially from China, partly in the hope that some gifted workers will subsequently seek permanent employment here.

41.10 An aspect of our future which has exercised the Grants Committee and, doubtless, many others engaged in higher education is the influence of our much closer relation with China, sometimes described as the permeable frontier (Chapter 33). As far as our own graduates are concerned, there are both advantages and disadvantages. They will have greater employment opportunities in the wider economy, where their experience of living in a business-orientated society at an East-West conjunction will be valued. They will, however, be in competition with Chinese graduates drawn from a very elitist higher education system. For our institutions opportunities for collaborative work in teaching and research with their counterparts in China should increase. We believe that the closer relationship with China is an asset, provided that it does not become all-demanding. Our institutions and their students need to look East, West and South, as well as North.

41.11 In Chapter 32 we explored the roles of the institutions. We hope that these will not change significantly over the next decade, except in the development of areas of excellence. At present we have a rich diversity, and its replacement by uniformity would be a major disservice to Hong Kong.

41.12 Summarising in a few words our perspective on the future, we believe that our HEIs in Hong Kong have a bright prospect provided that they use the current pause in expansion to establish a reputation for quality in both first degree and postgraduate output and research performance and relevance. They need to pay particular attention to language and communication skills. The institutions must use every good opportunity afforded by IT, while retaining the more valuable contributions of traditional pedagogy. The material conditions for excellence are present : its achievement is dependent upon imagination and dedication.

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