Chapter 5: Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom

5.1 The UGC's intermediary role is often described in different terms from those in paragraph 4.6 - as a "buffer" protecting the institutions from political interference with their internal management and members of their staff from limitations on their lines of enquiry or expressions of opinion. In fact the Grants Committee's protection only exists in so far as society delegates to the UGC responsibility for advising both government and the governing bodies of institutions on these matters. Nevertheless, the eight institutions of higher education funded through the UGC, which are statutorily autonomous corporations, each with its own Ordinance and Governing Council, currently do enjoy academic freedom and considerable institutional autonomy, subject to the constraints of financial dependence.

5.2 Institutional autonomy has many and complex components, not all of which require absolute autonomy, but the essential point is that our institutions are legally entitled to freedom of action in managing their affairs within the restraints of the laws of Hong Kong. The claim for autonomy does not rest upon any assumption of special privileges, but upon the argument (based on long experience) that the institutions can properly undertake the work expected of them by the community which supports them only if they have freedom of choice and of action. This does not exempt them from public interest and criticism, nor does it mean that their policies should not be under review by themselves, and by others.

5.3 One of the more important areas of institutional autonomy is in the selection of staff and students. Although pay scales and, under certain circumstances, conditions of employment may require government approval, the individuals appointed to posts, even at the highest level, are ultimately a matter for the institutions' Councils alone. Student numbers are determined by government on the advice of the UGC, but the acceptance or rejection of applicants for places is entirely a matter for the institutions.

5.4 Another aspect of institutional autonomy lies in the determination of curricula and the setting of standards. Although choices will necessarily depend upon prior educational achievement at school and upon employers' and professional bodies' needs and expectations of graduates, and there will be financial limitations in some disciplines, responsibility for what is taught and how well it is taught lies with the institutions.

5.5 Institutions can react to society's needs by the provision of new courses or the modification of existing ones much more effectively through their own network of contacts (including lay members of governing bodies and alumni) than through inflexible official channels concerned with manpower planning. Of course, academic plans and their financial consequences need detailed discussion with the UGC, not just because the Committee is in practice the paymaster, but because it can view one institution's proposals in the context of those of all of the institutions and of educational trends worldwide, and because it is aware of government's own needs. But, once triennial funding has been settled, the detailed implementation of academic plans, the modification of those plans to meet changing circumstances and the introduction of unforeseen developments to meet unexpected opportunities are all done more efficiently by unfettered institutions than by the UGC. Indeed, wise institutions will devolve much of this work to departmental level and give similar freedom of action.

5.6 Institutional autonomy in research is more complicated, since questions of the freedom of the individual researcher are also involved. In a broad sense, however, institutions are free to accept or reject external proposals (and finance) for research depending on their view of their role and whether their human and material resources, which are limited, are best deployed in a particular area.

5.7 An autonomy which is of major importance to HEIs in that it is a facilitator of all the other institutional autonomies is the freedom to deploy the government subvention and fee income as they see fit. We have already discussed the recurrent grant in paragraphs 4.3 and 4.4, and it remains UGC policy that earmarked and indicated grants, which can only be used for limited purposes, should be given rarely and be of short duration. Financial freedom does not, of course, mean licence. The use of the recurrent grant irresponsibly or in ways clearly at odds with government or community needs would have serious implications for future funding.

5.8 When we turn from institutional autonomy to the academic freedom of the individual, moral and ethical arguments are joined to those of providing effective service to the community. Individual freedom must, however, be tempered by responsibility to colleagues. As far as teaching is concerned, certainly below postgraduate level, members of staff will not usually be working in isolation. They will be presenting part of a course whose totality has been agreed with colleagues who will also be contributing. The course itself may form part of a larger programme to which it must make a defined contribution. Under these circumstances the individual teacher in higher education may have limited choice over the content of what he or she is to present. The teacher's freedom does not lie in the subject coverage, but in the material used to illustrate it, the views expressed about that material and, with some limitations because of integration with colleagues, the style of presentation.

5.9 Effective teaching requires the teacher to capture the student's interest and imagination and to motivate the student to explore and thus understand the subject matter. This cannot be done by rote learning of the current orthodoxy. The student must be encouraged to question, to argue and to challenge if the material is to be comprehended properly. The teacher must be given similar freedom in argument not only with students, but with colleagues inside and outside the institution, if his or her understanding of the subject is to expand and progress. The purpose of all this is to produce qualified employees and thinking citizens who are used to querying current approaches and methods and can thus improve working practices, introduce new methods and products, and who themselves are sufficiently flexible to change to meet new challenges and opportunities both at the workplace and outside it. Academic freedom in teaching is to be encouraged as a precursor of industrial, business and community success. There is a correspondence world-wide between those countries which are relatively wealthy, and those which encourage their teachers and students to think for themselves.

5.10 In the codification and acquisition of knowledge (scholarship and research) there are very many restraints on staff in higher education. The principal one is lack of time. Most staff are primarily employed to teach, and although the actual instruction of students (contact hours) may not seem burdensome, the accompanying preparation, administration, counselling, examining and so on can occupy most of the available working week. In some subjects, particularly in science and technology, there may in practice be restriction on the area of enquiry because of the need for expensive equipment or collaborative effort. Much scientific research is done by teams of workers, and individuals may be expected to make particular contributions dependent on their expertise. In many areas, scholarship and research will be hindered by lack of resources - inadequate library facilities, outdated laboratory equipment and similar deficiencies. Then there are limitations because funding bodies (both inside and outside the institution) may well take a different view of priorities from that of an individual member of staff.

5.11 The restrictions on scholarship and research which we have described in the preceding paragraph are part of the normal expectations of those working in higher education. It is vital, however, that there is not superimposed upon them, by governing bodies, government or anyone else, a further set of embargoes based upon value judgements as to the merit of the activity, potential embarrassment by the outcome, political sensitivity of the subject matter, or any other extraneous argument. Nor should there be limitation on extending debate outside the institution through publication, or international meetings or correspondence. A high proportion of the research carried out in institutions of higher education, including that given priority in funding by peer-group and external committees, inevitably achieves little. It is in the nature of academic research that serendipity plays a considerable part in advances and discoveries which ultimately benefit society and they come as much from unorthodox enquiry as from exploitation of known routes.

5.12 Society benefits from workers reared in an atmosphere of free discussion because they can react successfully to changing circumstances and are themselves the agents of change. Research which is unfettered by ideological considerations gives the greatest chance of new discoveries which will enhance wealth creation and social good. As well as these pragmatic arguments there are underlying less material considerations. In summary, they aver that the freedom of a higher education institution to choose its own staff and students and for the individual members of its staff to teach and research as they think best is part of a wider liberty which must be safeguarded in a free society.

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