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  A SWOT Analysis of the Research Arena in Hong Kong

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The Research Grants Council (RGC) has served the higher education sector and the research community in Hong Kong for more than two decades, during which the field of research has moved towards globalization and collaboration amidst intensifying competition for funding and for research talents. In the midst of this dynamic current, Professor Benjamin W Wah assumed Chairmanship of the RGC in January 2013, as Professor Roland Chin retired as the Chairman of RGC after a remarkable seven-year service.

Professor Benjamin Wah, on taking over the role as the fourth Chairman of the RGC, visited all eight of the University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded institutions in Hong Kong in March and April to exchange views on the work of the RGC and on research-related matters in a bid to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of local research in order to help him form an informed picture of the opportunities available to and the threats against the research sector in Hong Kong.

Professor Wah finds the exchange with faculty members and staff handling research-related matters at the institutions very fruitful. Equipped with the views collected at these meetings and drawing on his own experience and insights, Professor Wah has drawn up a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on research funding in Hong Kong to facilitate the formulation of strategic plans for the RGC.

The new Chairman of the RGC has identified a number of Strengths (S) in the research sector in Hong Kong. The RGC, established in 1991, has helped propel a lot of developments in supporting research in Hong Kong. “There is now stable funding from the government for research and this funding is not affected by the economy.” Professor Wah adds, “Funding amounts and success rates are both decent.” The UGC provides research funding totaling HK$5.6 billion per year (which includes over $1.1 billion in RGC funding, $1.5 billion in research post-graduate student (RPg) funding, and $3 billion in the form of the R-portion funded through block grants). With over 4500 active academics in Hong Kong, each academic is supported by HK$1.24 million approximately on average. The academics’ success rate in terms of getting funding approval for their research projects in the General Research Fund (GRF), the Early Career Scheme (ECS), and the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS) is over 36% in 2013/14, higher than the rates on similar types of funding schemes in other countries. Professor Wah points out that the research excellence achieved by Hong Kong’s academic institutions is evident in the high international rankings accorded to them. In addition, as an international city, Hong Kong has advantages in attracting and recruiting outstanding researchers from around the world. Hong Kong also has advantages in being the bridge that facilitates exchanges between Mainland academics and overseas academics. These are the many strengths that the research community in Hong Kong can capitalize on.

In terms of Weaknesses (W), Professor Wah notes that “Hong Kong is facing severe competition from the Mainland and other Asian countries like Singapore for talents.” For example, in the past five years, many Mainland universities have endeavoured to attract research talents from around the world. In addition to offering better remuneration packages, Mainland institutions are also providing additional research support such as building laboratories for specific purposes and establishing research teams for the recruits. These endeavours have lured a number of academics to leave Hong Kong for the Mainland.

In addition to external factors, the views collected during Professor Wah’s visits in March and April point to a common concern among local institutions – the career prospects for graduates in the Science, Engineering and Technology fields. As a service-oriented city and an international finance centre, there is no dispute that Hong Kong is putting its focus on financial and service industries rather than on the hi-technology sector. With the limited number of hi-tech companies in Hong Kong and a large number of the hi-tech developments in the Pearl River Delta area, the career prospects in Hong Kong for graduates with science and technology degrees are not the greatest, as the sector is not able to fully absorb the over 9,000 undergraduates and about 1,000 postgraduates with science and technology degrees on an annual basis. “This is not to say that hi-tech companies do not need recruits. They do, but there is a mismatch between what is available and what is needed in the job market, and graduates should keep an open mind because they may sometimes find better opportunities outside Hong Kong.”
With a firm grasp of the Strengths and Weaknesses, it is important that Opportunities (O) and Threats (T) are identified. Professor Wah notes that collaborative research is the future to further bring research excellence to Hong Kong. Currently, more than half of the GRF applicants are conducting research individually. While larger-scale projects under the Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) and Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme involve more researchers, small-scale collaborations, either within or across institutions, are still not a common trend. Professor Wah says that the opportunity for development and growth for Hong Kong’s research lies in the expansion of collaborative research across all levels – among different institutions and also across disciplines within the same institutions. These opportunities exist in Humanities and Social Science, as well as Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Starting from next year, the size of the Collaborative Research Fund (CRF) will be increased from HK$80 million to HK$0.1 billion, and smallscale collaborative projects will be strongly encouraged.

Another opportunity lies in improving teaching and learning in the higher education. A tripartite funding of HK$82 million from the Education Bureau, the UGC and UGC-funded institutions (in the form of a matching fund) has been set up to accelerate the adoption of necessary pedagogical changes and innovations. This fund may provide incentives to develop new Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) capabilities for Hong Kong. For instance, one possible initiative is to set up a MOOC platform that would allow the eight institutions to share courses and course content of an introductory nature leading towards their major disciplines. Professor Wah explains the benefit of the MOOC, “Apart from sharing of teaching material, it also offers students a chance to modify the way they learn – having prepared for their classes ahead of time through the MOOC platform, students can devote more class time to discussion and to enrich their learning experience and to expand their knowledge through discussion. This platform is also beneficial to secondary school students who can acquire relevant knowledge prior to embarking on their university studies.” The UGC, according to Professor Wah, considers teaching and learning as one of its key focus areas and RGC will support pedagogical studies that link research to teaching and learning.

While capitalizing on the opportunities that present themselves, the threats are not to be overlooked. Professor Wah says, “There are a lot of areas in which we wish to develop. However, we are limited by not having the desirable critical mass. In Hong Kong, we only have an aggregate of about 4,500 faculty members, which is comparable to the size of 1 to 2 large institution(s) in the United States. As a result, we are not able to develop national laboratories like in other countries. To be able to compete on the international arena, we are still lacking in terms of size and scale.” He adds, “Although the self-financing sector will help build our critical mass, its development and fine-tuning will take time.” Currently, not a lot of local graduates are interested in pursuing postgraduate studies in Hong Kong. However, to Professor Wah, this can present itself as an opportunity for Hong Kong as the postgraduate places are filled by research talents who are attracted to Hong Kong from all over the globe. “From the perspective of academic research and exchange,” Professor Wah elaborates, “research talents should not be bound by geographical boundaries.” “Many local students want to go overseas to pursue their studies in order to broaden their horizon. At the same time, nonlocal talents who come to Hong Kong bring with them enormous contribution towards the future development of Hong Kong.”

Professor Wah realizes that it has not been the RGC’s customary practice to use SWOT analysis to help determine strategic development. The RGC has decided that going forward, it will incorporate discussions on strategic planning in its meetings. Turning research results into something that will bring positive impacts and benefits to Hong Kong is to be encouraged and will be on the RGC’s agenda. Professor Wah reminds local researchers that it is important to strive for research that impacts Society, whether inside or outside Hong Kong, so that society as a whole can benefit.

The views expressed in articles are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of RGC unless explicitly stated.