25 March 2019
When students graduate from an American university, they have spent years learning to think for themselves. Photo: Stanford University
When students graduate from an American university, they have spent years learning to think for themselves. Photo: Stanford University

Why we can’t build world-class universities

At a forum of university heads held in Nanjing in May 2010, many attendees agreed it would take some time before China could develop its own world-class universities.

Stanford University president John L. Hennessy believed it would take at least another 20 years.

Before I took up my job in Hong Kong, I had already been exchanging ideas with my counterparts in the mainland for over 20 years and frequently pondered that question.

Several world rankings of universities in recent years have suggested that top universities in the mainland are quickly narrowing their gap with their rivals in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in some aspects mainland universities have even taken the lead.

However, it hasn’t changed the fact that universities on both sides of the strait are still 10 to 20 years behind their western counterparts in overall academic levels.

So why are we still lagging?

It usually takes a good utilization of visible and invisible resources for a university to reach world class.

In general, universities on both sides of the strait have done quite well in hardware and software, such as campus infrastructure and teaching equipment.

As far as the standard of teachers, teaching materials and curriculum design are concerned, our universities are making painstaking efforts to catch up with the West.

However, when it comes to the building of “heartware”, we still lag far behind our western counterparts.

“Heartware”, a phrase coined by me, refers to an educational philosophy that emphasizes professionalism in teaching and research, academic qualities, social benefit and pragmatism.

The “heartware” also stresses the importance of relying on true experts to run universities. People who have no expertise in teaching and research should not interfere in the day-to-day running of universities.

In fact, it takes more than just having good hardware and software to build a world-class university; “heartware” is also an indispensable component.

It is a philosophy that needs to be widely embraced by university teaching staff, the management, the boards and even members of the public to make world-class universities possible.

Based on my observations, I believe our society should be held partly accountable for our universities’ backwardness in fostering “heartware”.

Chinese have always attached great importance to education, and it is a merit that the cost of a tertiary education in Hong Kong and Taiwan is relatively low.

However, this has proved to be a double-edged sword, because low tuition fees might also lead to valuable educational resources being abused and university degrees being undercherished.

Because of that, the general public has to foot the expensive bill for a university education that often fails to deliver the expected results and benefit society.

This is largely due to a lack of accountability, quality and efficiency, which are also the basic components of “heartware”.

The universities in Hong Kong have a credit system similar to that of their American counterparts: undergraduate students must complete 120 credits to graduate.

Although American college students seem to be more hard-working, the overall graduation rate stands at only 50 per cent, while their counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan achieve a graduation rate of almost 100 percent.

The figures might look impressive, but the actual result is in fact negative: the rising number of graduates has led to a decline in their academic quality and the decrease in the market value of their degrees.

Many fresh graduates cannot find a job or have to accept a low starting salary, and many of them often express their grievances against the government.

So why is this happening?

Although university students in Hong Kong are usually busy with assignments and have to sit for a lot of tests and exams, they seldom take part in any research projects.

In contrast, American students have to go through a lot of studies of a research nature to obtain “design credits” and take part in discussions through which their capacity for independent thinking can be enhanced.

If they don’t do well in such studies, they get low marks and won’t be able to graduate.

It’s hardly the one-way knowledge transfer through lectures most Asian students are used to.

The majority of Hong Kong university students still rely on textbooks and teaching in formal lectures.

In fact, students should have already learned most of the content in their textbooks prior to lectures.

Lecturers are supposed to inspire innovation and foster creative thinking among students; it would be lazy and incompetent for them to just repeat what the textbooks say during their lectures.

These days, university students in Hong Kong still tend to follow the old tradition of learning from books and sitting for exams  and rarely do projects and presentations, a far cry from their American counterparts.

As a result, college graduates nurtured by the American system are usually stronger in independent thinking and have a higher capacity for analysis, and they are often more innovative in the workplace.

Unfortunately, it appears Hong Kong university students are quite the opposite, which will put our society at a disadvantage in the long run.

To meet the challenge posed by globalization in the 21st century, we must be determined to catch up with universities in the West in building “heartware”!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 26.

Translation by Alan Lee

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President and University Distinguished Professor of City University of Hong Kong

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