Overreliance on contract educators compromises teaching quality

February 27, 2019 11:58
Universities in Hong Kong are facing growing questions over their increasing reliance on contract-based employees to fill teaching positions. Representational image: HKU

Job uncertainty is increasingly casting a shadow over part-time or contract educators, causing an adverse impact on the quality of teaching and learning in Hong Kong's post-secondary institutions.

About 57 percent part-time educators had to work for more than one tertiary institution in 2018 to earn a decent living, according to a survey conducted by the Professional Teachers’ Union between October and November last year.

Up to 6 percent of the respondents said they taught at five or six institutions last year.

Nine in 10 educators also said that they were not entitled to any employee benefits and up to 70 percent of the part-time educators surveyed were only offered contracts covering just one semester or six-month period, prompting them to drift from one institution to another.

The policy intent of permitting part-time academic staff was to allow veteran industry practitioners such as frontline social workers and nurses to become lecturers to share their knowledge and experience of the field with the students in class. However, nearly 70 percent of the respondents felt the system has been distorted and abused.

Our Union believes that it could have been due to the emphasis on research over teaching by institutions, where a substantial amount of resources have been directed to funding research or hiring researchers while on the teaching side, more short-term contract-based educators are hired to cut costs.

Given the short contract tenor, It is imaginable that job insecurity would impact on educators’ performance and commitment. Some contract educators do not even have a fixed desk, let alone an office, making it difficult for them to meet students for discussion of academic matters.

Meanwhile, 60 percent of contract teachers have been in service for more than six years, but still not able to get a permanent teaching position, given the prescribed policy.

On May 23 last year, I raised a series of written questions at a Legislative Council meeting on the subject of employment of academic staff by post-secondary institutions.

It was shocking to learn that all Hong Kong universities funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC), except Lingnan University which declined to reply, were filling more than half of their teaching staff with contract-based employees, with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology topping the list at 76.6 percent.

A permanent appointment status not only serves to recognize the contribution made by the concerned academic staff, it provides an incentive to attract and retain quality teachers.

Instead of putting emphasis on research achievements, we should put equal weighting on both research and teaching and hire more full-time educators.

After all, UGC-funded universities are spending the public's money. Nurturing the next generation talent is their fundamental mission, rather than fighting for higher global university rankings by boosting research outcomes at the expense of teaching quality.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 19

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Legislative Council member from the education sector