SCMP, Sunday, February 13, 2000

When academia loses value


The Education Commission proposes to reform education in Hong Kong throughout all sectors. The primary and secondary sectors have reforms already in the pipeline, but local universities are lagging far behind their counterparts in Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States.

Pray that they may continue to do so. For Hong Kong to follow the Australian example would be a disaster for Hong Kong.

Australia, along with Britain and New Zealand, has restructured its tertiary system along the lines dictated by economic rationalism. That is, universities are to be seen as an industry with a product to sell. To make sure they sell it, the Australian Government cut per capita funding of universities by roughly 30 per cent over 10 years. A further cut of A$1 billion (HK$4.9 billion) was announced only last Christmas Eve: in order to promote competition, quality, and flexibility, as the government put it.

The agenda of universities prior to this was primarily to pursue knowledge for its own sake through research and teaching, following the words of then Prime Minister Robert Menzies 30 years ago: "It is of vital importance for human progress in all fields of knowledge that the highest encouragement should be given to untrammelled research, to the vigorous pursuit of truth, however unorthodox it may seem."

Menzies was echoing the philosophy that had been driving the best universities in the world, including those in Hong Kong. Their charter is to research and teach, with particular but not exclusive emphasis on the fundamental disciplines in the humanities and sciences, in a context of academic freedom and job tenure. Academics, as the subject experts, should make the academic decisions and run universities, not accountants, not even politicians.

The function of professional and vocational education is logically a separate issue from basic research and ensuing teaching. It is convenient to situate some professional education in universities, if that is where their research base lies, but that is not the primary function of universities. In the past, much professional and vocational education was carried out more cheaply in colleges and polytechnics, where teaching had priority over research, and where staff were frequently on contracts so that changing community demands could be met flexibly.

This two-tiered model, of universities and colleges, makes economic and educational sense. But it didn't make sense to the bean counters, to politicians who wanted to control universities, or to college staff, who saw themselves as second class citizens. So the distinction in Australia was abolished in the 1988 Dawkins Report. All were called "universities", but on greatly reduced budgets and with restructured top-down administrative structures. In effect, they became colleges. The Howard Government since 1996 has been even more savage, financially and ideologically. The quality of both research and teaching has suffered terribly as a result.

Much research funding now comes from the private sector, whereas previously it was almost exclusively from the government-funded Australian Research Council (equivalent to the Hong Kong Research Grants Council). The private sector funds the sort of research that will benefit the shareholders, not what needs doing to advance scholarship. Some consequences:

It is difficult to obtain funds for basic research, which is what universities were set up to do.

Private donors frequently embargo publication, the lifeblood of an academic. The Vice-Chancellors at La Trobe and Melbourne Universities ruled last year that academics were not to publish in areas that would compete with donor-sponsored research. Universities are now colluding in privatising knowledge, an antithesis of their raison d'etre.

Academics lose intellectual ownership over their research. At Queensland University of Technology recently, Ines Carrin, a post-doctoral researcher, made two breakthroughs in banana genetics. Her work was allocated to graduate students to follow up, and her name was omitted from ensuing publications and patent applications.

An honours student in Tasmania, Alexandra de Blas, did her research on pollution for which she received First Class Honours. Her findings were broadcast on ABC News, whereupon the Mt Lyell company threatened her with legal action if she dared to publish. The Vice-Chancellor sided with Mt Lyell, and ordered the university printer not to proceed as planned.

This is a flavour of how universities are being corrupted by entrepreneurialism. Not surprisingly, Australian universities have mostly dropped out of the top league of research universities. In the Institute for Scientific Information's Web of Science list, the Australian National University is in 16th position, the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong 36th and 37th respectively, the University of Melbourne 69th, and the University of New South Wales 85th. But ANU is a dedicated graduate and research institution. Both major Hong Kong universities are streets ahead of the best Australian universities in terms of productivity and quality research.

Managerialism has had just as horrendous effects on teaching. Programmes that sell well, like business studies, are thriving. There is nothing wrong with that, except that they are driving out traditional disciplines. Monash University in 1998 announced massive cuts in teaching positions with Classics and American Studies closing entirely.

When universities compete for student dollars, like any business they try to attract customers. In doing so, they are likely to betray their charter. Modularisation of courses, and credit transfers between courses, are designed to make knowledge more marketable. Standards crash:

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Tasmania badly needed to attract fee-paying students. So only months ago they voted to award High Distinctions (A grade) to the top 40 per cent of performers in all arts subjects.

New modules at the University of Newcastle have no prerequisites, in order to maximise and attract student mobility. The result is a "degree" in effect comprising 24 first-year subjects: no pursuit of knowledge in depth, a perfect recipe for disjointed surface learning.

Programmes become homogenised, so they may be interchangeable across institutions. Teachers then do not teach from their established areas of excellence, but to an assumed lowest common denominator of course content.

The Dawkins Report ruled that small class teaching was "a poor use of resources". Many classes now are unmanageably large, and allocated to junior teachers. Many teachers incorrectly but understandably see mass lecturing and multiple-choice testing as their only options.

Centres for improving teaching are being downsized.

Worst of all has been the restructuring of universities, so that academics are herded into large mega-departments, and decisions are enforced top down. Academics in most universities now have little say on academic issues.

What then about tertiary teaching in Hong Kong? I wrote in Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Open University Press) that the tertiary sector in Hong Kong could "show the rest of the world what implementing innovative teaching, and supporting staff development, were all about. All eight on-campus tertiary institutions, and the vocational sector, now have staff development units dedicated to improving teaching and learning, and millions of dollars annually are provided for research and development on tertiary teaching".

That was the situation three years ago; today it has changed slightly, with the commitment to staff development not quite so universal. Nevertheless, teaching in the Hong Kong tertiary sector in terms of class size, resourcing, and innovative practice, is currently of a high standard. In most Australian universities, it is mediocre and getting worse. Of course, some individual departments and programmes are committed to quality teaching, but the picture overall is one of despair.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a cringe factor in Hong Kong, which says that what is going on in other countries is the way to go here. In tertiary education that is dangerous thinking. Already some institutions are restructuring to facilitate top-down management, tenured posts are being replaced by short-term contracts, most programmes are now modularised, and the Education Commission is talking of transferable credit units. There is also the view that information technology is the quick fix to enhance teaching, rather than thoughtful analysis of how one is teaching and how one can teach better. So, it is concluded that information technology can replace staff development.

No, before rushing into reform for the sake of it, it is much cheaper and less painful to learn from the mistakes that others have made. The Education Commission is right in saying we should have diversity. But the Hong Kong tertiary system is remarkably diverse. This diversity and quality must be retained and enhanced, not homogenised downwards as will inevitably happen if all institutions are forced to become knowledge shops.

The overseas evidence is that top-down managerialism dumbs down universities. It hasn't happened here. Just let us make sure that it does not.

John Biggs was previously Professor of Education in the University of Hong Kong from 1987 until retirement in 1995. He has since alternated between Australia and Hong Kong on various higher education projects.