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Optimising the Use of University Places to Respond to Community Needs

There is a public interest in the funding allocation for universities.  The UGC has just started the academic development planning process for the 2012-15 triennium, which aims at encouraging institutions to review their programme offering and to move with the times.  Publicly-funded degree places are limited.  It is incumbent upon the UGC, as an advisory body recommending Government on the allocation of student numbers and funding to the eight funded institutions, to ensure that the given resources are made good use of to address the current needs of the society.

The UGC generally adopts a triennial cycle to engage institutions in the academic planning for the forthcoming triennium, in which the number of student places to be allocated to various disciplines is determined.  In the process, the Government would set specific manpower requirements for certain professions (such as doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers, etc.).  Institutions are expected to try meeting them as far as practicable.  Yet apart from these specific disciplines, how do institutions inform themselves of the strategic merit of their programmes and the current social needs?  Confined by the finite number of publicly-funded places, expanding existing or introducing new programmes would mean a corresponding reduction in others.  This is in essence a "zero sum game".

No programme directors or department heads will be willing to come to a conclusion that their programmes are not justified.  I do hope that indeed all programmes are worthwhile, as this shows that we did our planning right three years ago.  We believe that, in mapping out the academic plan for the next triennium, institutions will not resort to maintaining the status quo simply to avoid facing “problems” with individual departments, but are making genuinely well-informed decisions, having thorough consideration of the institutional mission, role and academic comparative strength.  I know this is no easy task, but for the effective use of taxpayers’ money and limited student places, the UGC supports institutions to make the difficult decisions where necessary for the benefit of the entire community.

In this connection, the UGC has since 2001 been having a competitive and performance-related element in the allocation of a small proportion of places and funding to institutions in each funding cycle.  This approach has two objectives: to enhance the role of each institution; and to advance the international competitiveness of individual institutions, as well as that of the higher education sector as a whole.

Driving Performance through Competitive Allocation

The competitiveness involved is that a small percentage of first-year-first-degree (FYFD) places will be set aside for reallocation based on the comparative merit of Academic Development Proposals submitted by the institutions.  For the remaining over 90% of places, institutions have substantial autonomy in their allocation which the UGC will not interfere.  It should be noted that the UGC will not take away any resources put to the entire sector.  The UGC had moved places across institutions in the past to reward and reflect comparative performance through the competitive allocation mechanism.

I should stress that the rationale behind the competitive allocation mechanism is not to push (nor “force”) institutions artificially to come up with some “eye-catching” new programmes or needlessly to slim or eliminate existing ones.  The essence is that institutions should think through their whole institutional endeavour in general, and be able to provide sound strategic reasons, consistent with their role, for the programmes they seek to offer – be they new or existing – in the coming triennium.  In other words, if institutions, after careful deliberation, consider it desirable to retain all existing programmes, the UGC should be fine with that.  However, applying a pro rata cut across all disciplines, and mechanically returning these places to them at the end, without going through the due process of strategically evaluating the value of all programmes will just defeat the purpose of the competitive allocation mechanism.

Certain Disciplines being marginalised?

The UGC has consulted the eight institutions on the broad evaluation criteria for the 2012-15 Academic Development Proposal exercise.  These criteria are whether: (1) the institution has a strategy which enables it to deliver high quality and internationally competitive taught programmes which are consistent with its role; and which incorporates, where appropriate, collaboration with other institutions and the provision of any relevant self-financing activities; (2) the institution provides teaching and learning opportunities which are effective in enabling students to attest to personal and intellectual development, match international standards for the award of degrees, prepare students for their careers, and meet the needs of Hong Kong; (3) the institution engages effectively in advanced scholarship appropriate to its role, and uses that scholarship to inform its undergraduate teaching and future research activity; and (4) the institution has working relationships with business and the community that are appropriate to its role, which facilitate knowledge transfer, and inform its teaching; and contributes to the transmission and preservation of cultural value.  From these criteria, the UGC is sensitive to institutions’ respective role, and assess institutions against benchmarks set for themselves.

In the case of seven institutions, the percentage of FYFD places for competitive allocation is the same, therefore the number of places small/medium-sized institutions need to set aside for re-allocation will be relatively fewer.  Lingnan University has decided to “stay small”, and the corresponding percentage will be reduced accordingly.  There is thus no question of unfair treatment against small/medium-sized institutions.

When I visited the eight institutions recently to meet face-to-face with the academics, most Deans and Department Heads generally agree the underlying rationale of the Competitive Allocation mechanism, but they did have some concerns over the details of the mechanism, such as: would it bring uncertainty to the planning of institutions?  Would programmes lacking “market appeal” be marginalised as a result?  Would any institutional staff be sacked?  I would like to respond to them here.

Most Places allocated by Institutions themselves

First, regarding stability, as I have mentioned above, the majority of student places are allocated by the institutions themselves.  The academic development planning process set the indicative student intake target of various programmes, while the actual enrollment will fluctuate slightly for various reasons.  Together with non-local students, institutions have the flexibility to over-enrol 20% or 4% under-enrol.  So, institutions should already have an established mechanism to deal with changes in the actual number of students.  Under the "3+3+4" academic structure, institutions generally allow students to elect their majors in their second year, I believe such broader-based admission helps institutions to prepare themselves better for dealing with small variation in student numbers in various disciplines.

Some people said that disciplines like history, fine arts and pure sciences would be “marginalised”.  I do not agree.  In our earlier letter to the institutions, we acknowledged institutions’ role in the transmission and critical appraisal of cultural values, and in the preservation and development of fields of knowledge for which student demand may not be high.  Certain fields of study may be of particular importance to individual institutions, given their role, traditions and mission.

Institutions should not only take a utilitarian approach (e.g. “market value”, student and employer demand, etc.) in considering what programmes to offer in the next triennium.  In fact, higher education institutions as a repository and cradle of specialised knowledge in various fields, should suitably balance scholarship with low student demand, in determining their academic development strategy. 

The 2012-15 triennium is a golden opportunity.  The Government is putting in over a billion dollars of additional recurrent funding to the eight institutions to implement the "3+3+4" academic structure.  This is also the time when institutions proactively recruit a great number of academics for “3+3+4” and therefore I think institutions will not easily layoff talents.

Publicly-funded degree places are limited in number, but the resources put into each of them is considerable.  The UGC and the institutions share responsibility in ensuring that the precious public resources are properly utilised, curricula and programmes reviewed from time to time to respond to community needs.

Laura M Cha
Chairman, University Grants Committee