18 February 2019
Hong Kong's universities can preserve their autonomy from the government if they become self-funding. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong's universities can preserve their autonomy from the government if they become self-funding. Photo: HKEJ

How HK universities can rid themselves of political intervention

Hong Kong universities are, without doubt, suffering from political intervention.

There have been several indications that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration aims to clean up the universities of their pro-democracy and opposition forces, raising concerns about whether the government-funded tertiary institutions can maintain their academic autonomy.

Now TV reported Monday that Leung urged business tycoons to channel their donations to research and development institutions in Hong Kong, as well as secondary schools, saying local universities have sufficient funding and resources and too many academic staff.

On Tuesday night, the Chief Executive’s Office responded to media inquiries about the news report.

It did not directly address the issue but stressed that the chief executive encouraged the public to donate to educational institutions including universities and secondary schools and attended at least three donation ceremonies at local universities.

On other recent occasions, Leung was reportedly unhappy when local university students opened yellow umbrellas, a symbol of last year’s Occupy movement, on the stage during their graduation ceremony.

He was also displeased when some Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) students booed the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China when they watched a soccer match between the Hong Kong and China teams.

The statement Tuesday did not confirm or deny whether Leung discouraged the tycoons from donating to local universities. 

But his remarks at the closed-door event must not have sat well with some of those present, who reportedly included several university vice-chancellors, otherwise they would not have been leaked to Now TV.

The government has in fact scaled back its funding to the government-funded universities this year, after it stopped a matching grant scheme that ran from 2003 to 2014.

The scheme, under which the government provided universities with grants to partially match donations from the public, was a major source of funding for the local institutions in the past decade.

Government figures show that over the past six rounds of the matching grant scheme, the institutions raised HK$14.8 billion in private donations and a total of HK$7.4 billion of matching grants were allocated.

While the government did not give a reason for the decision not to continue the matching grant scheme this year, official records show that the University of Hong Kong, which has been in political turmoil this year over the eventually aborted appointment of law professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as a pro vice chancellor, was the institution that benefited most from the scheme last year.

HKU raised HK$1.14 billion from donations last year and secured about HK$600 million in grants from the government.

CUHK also raised more than HK$1 billion from the public and secured about HK$600 million in government grants last year.

However, the cancellation of the matching grant scheme did affect the fundraising performance of the universities.

Donations from the public to HKU for the year to June 30 tumbled more than 50 percent to HK$679 million from HK$1.5 billion in the same period last year.

The government’s policy change was probably one of the reasons for the decline.

The university also came under political pressure from the beginning of this year as pro-Beijing media outlets attacked Chan’s candidacy for the pro vice chancellor appointment.

Some of HKU’s academic staff and students took part in the Occupy movement.

These could also be reasons for the drop in donations to HKU.

As the tertiary education sector emerges as a battlefield for Beijing in its efforts to achieve the submission of Hong Kong to the Communist Party regime, the authorities are exploiting the chief executive’s position as chancellor of all the government-funded universities to intervene in the institutions’ development, including the appointment of senior management as well as the allocation of funding.

Putting political loyalty ahead of academic achievement, Leung has appointed as members of university councils people notable for their pro-Beijing stance.

One recent example is his appointment of pro-Beijing lawyers Junius Ho Kwan-yiu and Maggie Chan Man-ki to the Lingnan University council.

It is a clear signal of the chief executive’s intention to tighten his grip on local universities to prevent them from turning into hotbeds of anti-Beijing sentiment.

Against this backdrop, it might be time for certain local tertiary institutions to study the possibility of independence from government funding and adopting a privately run model, so as to rid themselves of political interference.

The government provides about HK$17 billion in funding a year to eight universities in Hong Kong.

But at the same time, the universities also offer self-funded degree courses to local and overseas students, so they have some experience in providing courses without government grants and subsidies.

If local universities go private, they need to fill a large funding gap.

HKU received HK$3.9 billion in government funding for the July 2015-June 2016 school year, which accounted for more than 50 percent of its revenue.

Is it possible for the university to secure such a huge sum from tuition fees and donations?

Transforming local universities into privately run institutions may not be a short-term goal, but the management and alumni should start the discussion if they hope to maintain the academic autonomy that is key to the proper functioning of the universities. 

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EJ Insight writer

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