SCMP Saturday, November 25, 2000

Huang's university challenge


The first local vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, Rayson Huang Li-sung, retired 14 years ago, but still pays close attention to education here.
Now resident in Britain, Dr Huang was most recently in Hong Kong for the launch of his autobiography A Life in Academia, dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Grace Wei Li. During his visit, the 80-year-old expressed his disapproval of the rapid expansion in the number of places available in universities, which many think is behind the decline in the standards of graduates today. Before the 1990s, five per cent of 18- to 20-year-olds were enrolled in degree places each year. Now, 18 per cent are.
"Development in higher education in Hong Kong has come a bit too fast for me," said Dr Huang, who served as vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 14 years. "Depending on your perspective, university education could be seen as a selective thing for selected individuals, whereas colleges are for people going for practical, technical training." To him, an ideal university education involves the training of the mind, of analytical thinking, rather than a means to meet a society's manpower needs. "I hate to see universities losing the function of developing the mind. University graduates should be equipped with an analytical mind. That is why I support student union activities, social interactions among students that help broaden their thinking."
His other concern is that under a swelling student population, research standards of university lecturers could be compromised. "Universities are institutions not just for the dissemination but also creation of knowledge. If you want to keep up the scope of tertiary education, perhaps one, two or three universities with good research standards should be named research universities, where teachers can be given more flexibility and time away from teaching."
In Britain, where he moved in 1994, talks are underway for designating selective, research-oriented tertiary institutions. The idea appeals to him.
Shantou-born Dr Huang entered HKU in the late 1930s on a government scholarship and became a renowned chemist. After retiring, he continued with the work of drafting the Basic Law and various other duties, including serving on the council of Guangdong's Shantou University, which he helped set up in the 1980s.
His book launch was officiated by interim vice-chancellor Ian Davies, appointed following Professor Cheng Yiu-chung's resignation in September. Dr Huang would not comment directly on Professor Cheng's departure, which followed a university inquiry that found the vice-chancellor allegedly tried to stop HKU pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu from conducting surveys on the popularity of the Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. But he said: "Whatever the controversy is, I felt a great pity that the whole affair was blown up to such an extent, leading to the resignation of the vice-chancellor."
But student political activities are a concern for Dr Huang, who in the 1960s was head of Nanyang University in Singapore before it merged with the University of Singapore.
He disapproves of the recent protests staged by a group of tertiary students to press for an amendment of the controversial Public Order Ordinance, which requires prior permission from police for every public gathering. "The law is still a law. If you want to change it, you have to do it through a proper channel, rather than by challenging, breaking it."
Dr Huang's passion for education is reflected in his support of the Hong Kong-based Croucher Foundation, which offers scholarships for science students and funding for scientific research. Dr Huang is both a funding trustee and life member of the foundation.
While in Hong Kong, he also spread the word about the new Grace Wei Huang Memorial Fund administered under the HKU Foundation, which awards three outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate business students each year. The proceeds of his book are going towards the fund.
"Grace was one of the few Chinese women enrolled in a business school in the late 1940s. But she could not use her skills. She did not work for one day after we married. I am grateful for her support throughout the years," he said.