SCMP Thursday, November 16, 2000


Spending to get the right results

When Alice Lam meets academics or university administrators from around the world, she always has the same question. Do they get sufficient funding? Almost invariably, she gets identical answers.
No, they say. The chorus is almost unanimous. "There's never enough resources for any system of higher education," contends the chairman of the University Grants Committee. "It's the same, no matter if it's Stanford or MIT in the United States or Fudan in Shanghai, or Oxford. There's never enough money."
In her experience, the only exception is Singapore, she says, where academics, business and government all seem to be behind the system.
It's the business of Alice Piera Lam Lee Kiu-yu and her colleagues on the powerful University Grants Committee (UGC) to ensure the public gets value for money from the $38 billion that is given to the SAR's eight tertiary institutions to cover their spending over a three-year period.
This flow of public cash pays salaries for all staff from gardeners to professors, provides subsidies for 83,754 students being educated in the UGC system and pays other regular expenses. The cost of building and maintaining buildings and other facilities and student financial assistance is extra.
Each of the universities has differing roles and priorities. Their needs are not the same. Once every three years, the presidents and vice-chancellors submit their academic development proposal to the committee. The Government in turn gives the committee forecasts of manpower needs; what sort of graduates with what skills will be needed in the future by society and business. It's a series of tough fiscal and intellectual debates as each of the eight institutions makes its case.
"With our restricted resources, we must set reasonable targets," Ms Lam adds. "Money must be put to work wisely with an absolute minimum of wastage." This is one reason why the 22-strong committee studies closely the broad range of disciplines offered at the tertiary institutions.
Obviously, it would be a ludicrous waste of money if six of them had faculties of law, for instance, or if all universities offered Russian-language courses. "One way of seeing that spending is effective is to make sure there is competition but no unnecessary duplication," Ms Lam says.
The former managing director of Hang Seng Bank keeps a canny eye on finances. "Simply saying that I don't have enough money is not good enough. My intention is to spend what we get now and get the right results. Once we've cut unnecessary spending to the bone and gone through extra suffering, then we can ask for more."
The UGC gets money in one allotment every three years. Ms Lam is still negotiating with government over the amount to be allocated to the universities for the 2001-2004 period. After agreement is reached, the overall cash limit must be approved by the Legislative Council.
One way of ensuring money is well spent is to insist that all institutions examine their processes to guarantee quality assurance. Ms Lam is adamant that in all eight institutions there is a solid understanding that teaching is the most important ingredient.
"We have people pointing accusing fingers at the UGC saying we approve too much spending on research," Ms Lam admits. "Well, partly true. About 26 per cent of the overall budget goes on research.
"Research is important, but teaching is paramount. We are spending a lot of time, effort and money to see we have quality processes in place and working in the institutions, stressing teaching and learning."
Numerous overseas academics assist the UGC. It has 11 members from abroad - accomplished scholars from all over the world. Every year, another 40 respected academic experts come to Hong Kong to look at how universities judge their own research and to review teaching quality. "The outsiders help make certain the funding process is fair and transparent," she says.
Ms Lam was named chairman of the UGC in 1998, replacing Edgar Cheng Wai-kin after he was appointed to head the Central Policy Unit, the Government's top think-tank.
Her insistence on teaching as the basic, core duty of a university is welcomed by many academics. The large scientific component on the committee guarantees that research is not forgotten. The focus on pure research and scientific research in recent years has partly been a result of universities working with the community and business to produce the suit of skills that society needs.
The focus in the local academic community is now on the scientific and information technology fields. "That's all very well," she says. "But you can't slight the humanities. A university without humanities is like a person without a soul."
Kevin Sinclair ( ) is a Hong Kong-based journalist.