22 August 2019
Chinese University of Hong Kong students participate in a rally in September in support of the political reforms campaign. Photo: HKEJ
Chinese University of Hong Kong students participate in a rally in September in support of the political reforms campaign. Photo: HKEJ

University rankings slide: Is it right to blame Occupy?

There is no disputing the fact that tertiary educational institutions have loomed large behind the ongoing civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong.

Two of the three Occupy Central founders are university lecturers — Benny Tai Yiu-ting is an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) law school and Chan Kin-man is an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) Faculty of Sociology.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, convener of the student group Scholarism, is now a freshman at the Open University of Hong Kong. Alex Chow Yong-Kang, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, is enrolled for a bachelor’s degree at HKU.

More than academic matters, the universities are currently abuzz with discussions on political affairs.

Not everyone is happy about it. Construction firm Chun Wo Development (00711.HK) has terminated its scholarship programs at HKU, CUHK, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University following the Occupy campaign.

In another case, a local business tycoon refused to accept an honorary doctorate degree from the Hong Kong Baptist University, saying the timing is not right.

Needless to say, Beijing officials are in a huff as college teachers and students have become the spearhead of the Umbrella Movement.

Early this month, Benny Tai resumed giving lectures at HKU. Some in the mainland say they just cannot understand why the Occupy organizers are able to retain their teaching and academic posts at universities.

“In the mainland, they will simply be sacked in the first place and the protesting students expelled; there’s no question about that,” a mainland citizen remarked on social media. They are also surprised that HKU President Peter Mathieson and his CUHK counterpart Joseph Jao-yiu Sung visited protest zones last month to show solidarity with students.

Now some mainland media, including Global Times, are blaming Occupy and widespread politicization in the tertiary sector for a decline in Hong Kong universities’ international rankings.

In September, the British education and careers networking firm Quacquarelli Symonds published its latest report on world university rankings, showing HKU being toppled by the National University of Singapore (NUS) from Asia’s top spot for a second year.

HKU is ranked 28th out of the 400 major institutions worldwide examined by the QS report this year while NUS is in the 22nd place. Hong Kong’s other universities have also seen a slide in their rankings. HKUST slipped to the 40th place while CUHK is in the 46th position. 

“When teachers and professors take absence from their academic posts to stir up illegal activities, and when students boycott classes and sleep in streets, how can you expect these universities to achieve better rankings?” said a mainland newspaper.

Netizens, meanwhile, also commented that colleges and universities in Hong Kong no longer produce scholars and quality graduates, but are instead in grooming “bunches of mobs and traitors”. Some even urge Beijing to exert pressure on university chiefs to “give these people some hard lessons”.

Local universities, for their part, refuse to read too much into the rankings. HKU and HKUST spokesmen said higher ranking is not the goal they pursue, and noted that professional autonomy and academic freedom is the cornerstone of future success.

In fact, the methodology deployed by the QS rankings centers around several aspects including academic peer review, faculty student ratio, citations per faculty and recruiter review, as well as international orientation.

Changes in rankings are quite normal and HKU, HKUST and CUHK are in fact constantly ranked by QS among the world’s top 50, standing with the most elite and prestigious tertiary institutions on the planet. By comparison, only one Chinese university – Tsinghua (rank: 47) – made to the top 50 list this year.  Other runners-up on the mainland are Peking University (57th spot) and Fudan University (71), and their rankings have also fallen.

It would be gratuitous and far-fetched to note changes in rankings as problematic and proceed to attribute the “failure” to local academia’s participation in the civil disobedience movement.

Former HKU Vice President Cheng Kai-ming notes in Hong Kong Economic Journal that safeguarding academic and intellectual freedom can be sometimes politically incorrect, but stressed that a university should be a kaleidoscope of diversified thoughts and views.

The fact that teachers and students can take part in Occupy without the fear of any suppression or interference from their universities shows that the core elements that make Hong Kong a prominent regional hub for higher education and contribute to a vibrant civil society are still intact.

–Contact the writer [email protected]


The main entrance to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University is covered with pro-Occupy posters. Photo: HKEJ

Occupy Central co-organizer Benny Tai is a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Photos: HKEJ, Common Wealth Magazine

A Hong Kong Baptist University student holds a yellow umbrella at a graduation ceremony. Photo: VJmedia

EJ Insight writer

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