27 October 2016
Chris Patten (L) never rejected any recommended university council member candidate but CY Leung has been accused of wanting his stooges in key bodies. Photos: Bloomberg, HKU, HKEJ
Chris Patten (L) never rejected any recommended university council member candidate but CY Leung has been accused of wanting his stooges in key bodies. Photos: Bloomberg, HKU, HKEJ

Exercising power over our universities: Past and present

“I protested that it would surely be better for the universities to choose their own constitutional heads. But the universities would not allow me to resign gracefully.”

Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Chris Patten made these remarks in a column “The Closing of the Academic Mind” that appeared on the online op-ed platform Project Syndicate last month.

What Patten was referring to was the tradition that Hong Kong’s top leader should be the ex-officio chancellor, the constitutional head, of all of the city’s eight publicly-funded universities.

The column basically criticized the trend of “political correctness” that has intruded universities in Britain and the United States, where “some students and teachers now seek to constrain argument and debate”.

Advocates of ideas that go against the so-called mainstream universal values are being squeezed out of the ivory tower, at the cost of academic freedom.

Cecil Rhodes, an ardent believer in British imperialism in the 19th century, got a special mention in the article as some student groups at the University of Oxford are petitioning to remove his statue from the campus. Patten is Oxford’s chancellor.

China and Hong Kong were also mentioned, as bad examples: Western values are off limits on Chinese campuses and the autonomy of Hong Kong institutions has also come under a cloud.

The Hong Kong government was quick in responding to Patten’s remarks.

A spokesperson for the Education Bureau said in a statement that Patten had given the nod for granting university status to three institutions — the City Polytechnic, Baptist College and the Polytechnic — in 1994 and also “reaffirmed the statutory mechanism for the governor to be the chancellor and it was enshrined through legislation”.

Patten hadn’t, throughout the remainder of his term, revised it or the relevant legislation, and neither were they abolished during the time of Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, the spokesperson pointed out.

The current practice, therefore, “stems from Patten’s decision”, the spokesperson said, accusing the Brit of making remarks with complete disregard to facts.

The government also expressed its regret over Patten’s comments that “the rationale seems to be that, because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014, the universities where they study should be brought to heel. So the city’s government blunders away, stirring up trouble, clearly on the orders of the government in Beijing”.

The claims are “totally groundless and a sheer fabrication”, it said.

The statement also cited HKU president Peter Mathieson as saying: “In my opinion, academic freedom is alive and well at (HKU). We do not however have complete institutional autonomy and nor can we expect it. We are a publicly funded institution and it is entirely appropriate that we are responsible to the public, and hence to the government that represents them, to assess, justify and adjust our activities according to societal impact and need.”

“Publicly funded institutions all over the world have similar responsibilities. Look at recent events in universities in the UK, the US, Canada and Japan or schools in Korea: none of them have complete institutional autonomy, so no one in Hong Kong should think that this issue is purely a local matter.”

Hong Kong people’s concerns over erosion of institutional autonomy partly stem from the recent controversy surrounding the appointment of a pro-vice chancellor for HKU and how established rules and procedures were held in utter contempt throughout.

Leung Chun-ying’s wheeling-dealing and perceived pushiness in handpicking HKU Council members and chairman have only exacerbated the widespread worries among the local intelligentsia.

Now students and staff at all the eight public universities will have referendums later this month to gather opinions on two intricately-related issues:

1. Whether the chief executive’s power to appoint council members and chairman should be abrogated, and

2. Whether to increase the number of elected members, including those representing academic staff and students.

I served as the Director of Education, and then Secretary for Education and Manpower from 1995 to 2000.

During my tenure, and as that of my predecessors, the established procedure to appoint university council members was like this: the education chief would, upon learning of any vacancy, consult relevant stakeholders of the university to shortlist candidates and submit recommendations to the governor/chief executive via the chief secretary. The government would also search for suitable candidates from its own pool of talent.

Patten never rejected any recommendation. Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the handover, did have reservations sometimes about who could chair a university council, but he would always seek my views before making any decision. Tung’s appointments never stirred up any dispute.

But now I don’t know the role of the education minister, under today’s political climate, in appointing people to a university council.

Mathieson’s views about universities having no complete autonomy and that they should answer to the government is based on the vital presumption that the government would always discipline itself when assessing, justifying and adjusting university activities.

Other jurisdictions that he mentioned — the UK, US, Canada, Japan and Korea — are all genuine democracies where the government is elected by its people. We have none of this in Hong Kong; the government doesn’t have the people’s mandate.

For the record, though democracy was also absent in the colonial era, all governors adopted a laissez-faire policy when it comes to the running of local institutions.

I feel that before we have ample discussion as to how to change the current mechanism, referendums are premature now.

What we need is a comprehensive review by both the government and the academia on the role of the top leader in universities. A compromise approach is to allow more directly-elected council members to counterbalance the power of the chief executive.

But I fear these suggestions will fall on deaf ears as the chief executive seems bent on establishing his hegemony over our institutions while pledging allegiance only to Beijing.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 16.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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