SCMP Monday, May 22, 2000


University chiefs: 'Extra cash necessary for longer degrees'


A switch to four-year degrees will not be possible without extra government funding, university chiefs have warned. The Education Commission, which has recommended an overhaul of the system from kindergarten to university, wants to extend undergraduate degrees from three to four years but says no more funding will be made available.

The commission, the Government's top education think-tank, says all new resources will instead be devoted to basic education. Universities - which already eat up one-third of recurrent spending on education - should learn from the experience of overseas tertiary institutions in seeking private funding, it said. A working group is to submit proposals to the Government in 2002.

University of Science and Technology vice-president Professor Otto Lin Chui-chau said the Government should not hinder higher education on the grounds of insufficient resources. "It's ridiculous if the Government does not allocate more resources to the universities in the reform process." he said. "Parents and students will suffer if university fees are raised."

Professor Lin said that, according to figures from the Institute of Management Development, Hong Kong ranked 41st in the world in 1997 on education spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.

He said the amount of private donations to his university had been negligible. "Harvard University has an endowment fund amounting to US$10 billion [HK$77 billion] to US$11 billion," he said. "How can we imagine that a university in Hong Kong can get as much in donations from graduates and enterprises as Harvard?"

City University president Chang Hsin-kang said he supported the reforms, but did not think universities could raise enough money without extra government funding. He said the taxation system and social climate were unfavourable for universities to follow examples set in the United States.

"Private donations to our university dropped drastically since the advent of Asia's financial storm. I have run up against a brick wall many times in the past two years," he said. "I am not turning a blind eye to the problem of insufficient resources. I hope the Government will find a way out."

There are 45,523 undergraduates and it costs taxpayers $230,000 a year to educate one student. Some university presidents estimated last year that one extra year of study might require $2 billion extra spending a year. Current total annual expenditure on tertiary education is about $14.7 billion.

The University of Hong Kong's dean of science, Dr Frederick Leung Chi-ching, said universities should support a four-year programme even if there were disputes over where to find the money. "An extra year would give new students more time to explore a wider range of subjects without having to specialise so quickly in an academic discipline," he said. "It is simply better education even if we don't know where to get the money at this moment."

Taxation Institute of Hong Kong council member Marcellus Wong Yui-keung said Hong Kong's low-tax regime did not provide enough deduction incentives for companies to make large donations. He recommended increasing tax deductions for companies in donations to education institutes.