The Tempinis diaries

May 27, 2009

The Rise of Hong Kong Universities

Filed under: education — toru @ 2:07 pm

Hong Kong universities seem to be giving Singapore a run for her money lately.

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Academics needed, by job | May 27, 2009
Article from: The Australian
ANDREJ Bogdanov would have been a great catch for any American university. He arrived in the US from Macedonia in 1996, and succeeded at the top computer-science programs in the country: bachelor of science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; PhD from Berkeley; postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study.

But after a fruitless job hunt in the US, he turned his sights to East Asia.

Following a visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he applied on a whim, and promptly landed a high-paying tenure-track position in theoretical computer science.

To many academics in the US, Bogdanov’s choice might seem surprising. Hong Kong’s eight public universities have only recently begun to invest in the research necessary to turn them into global powerhouses. And the move isolated Bogdanov from the network of colleagues he’d built up over his years in America.

But if the Chinese territory’s ambitious plans for higher education take off, Bogdanov’s career path could become increasingly common.

Over the past several years, Hong Kong has made a determined effort to raise its profile by positioning its universities to compete globally for students, scholars and research projects. In the process, it is refashioning its higher-education system from the British three-year model into a four-year system aligned with those of the US and mainland China; the change becomes effective in 2012.

The overhaul includes pumping millions of dollars into research, retooling undergraduate curricula to inspire creative thinking, and hiring more professors: about 1000 in all.

Bogdanov says all this helped convince him that Hong Kong was a good place to be. While American computer-science departments were cutting back, Chinese University “had a lot of plans for the future,” he says. “They are trying to take advantage of the crisis in the US and Europe and bring other people.”

The global financial crisis has not yet hit Hong Kong as hard as it has the US. But the territory’s reliance on logistics, financial, and other services, which accounted for 92 per cent of its gross domestic product in 2007, makes it vulnerable to downturns. Officials see investment in higher education as a way to diversify and move towards a knowledge-based economy.

University administrators say they are searching everywhere for talent, but they cite the US most frequently.

“We want to recruit aggressively right away,” says Way Kuo, president of the City University of Hong Kong, who was hired from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he was dean of the College of Engineering. “We’d like to recruit a lot of people from America.” Kuo hopes to hire 200 faculty members, most of whom will earn the equivalent of tenure.

The University of Hong Kong has hired 100 tenure-track professors in the past three years and hopes to hire 100 more, says Joseph H.W. Lee, vice-president for staffing. The university is reaching out to renowned researchers and young talent to help build its reputation, with an emphasis on biomedicine, environmental science and emerging technologies.

“We would like to be a leading university in Asia,” says Lee. “To do that, you must be really research-intensive.”

The Chinese University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Hong Kong Polytechnic University are each adding more than 100 professors, along with dozens of lower-level instructors and administrative staff.

The main impetus for the hiring frenzy is a shift from the British model of higher education developed during Hong Kong’s lengthy colonial period.

Today the universities are supported by the local government, without interference from mainland China. But economic ties have brought the territory closer to both the mainland and the US, its second-largest trading partner. In 2012, when Hong Kong adds a fourth year of university study, it will shorten high school from four years to three. The number of university freshmen is projected to rise from 50,000 to 64,500.

The shift is part of a larger plan, begun in 2000, to restructure the territory’s entire education system, starting with elementary schools.

“We want to increase our competitiveness,” says S.K. Kwan, a senior staff member charged with curriculum development at the Education Bureau, which oversees the elementary-to- university levels. “That requires Hong Kong to be more flexible.”

To cover new construction and curriculum development, the bureau authorised $723 million in spending.

To preserve institutional autonomy, that money is distributed by the University Grants Committee, a buffer organisation whose appointees include representatives from the academic community. Decisions on how to approach change and proceed with hiring are made at the university level.

At the same time, Hong Kong, which invests nearly 6 per cent of its annual budget in higher education, has ambitions of evolving into an educational hub.

In 2007, Donald Tsang, the territory’s elected chief executive, outlined plans to increase the proportion of international and mainland students and relax employment restrictions for foreign students who stay on to work.

As they expand, several Hong Kong universities are also investing heavily in research.

“There’s a lot of experimentation occurring,” says Glenn Shive, director of the Hong Kong America Center at Chinese University, who left the US for Hong Kong in 1998. “It makes Hong Kong a very interesting place to be.”

A key element of Hong Kong’s higher-education plan is undergraduate curricular reform. Three years ago, the universities jointly announced new admissions requirements, hoping for more well-rounded candidates.

Now they are reworking curricula, generally moving away from requiring students to specialise early, and towards providing a more broad-based education and a universal freshman-year experience. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really design a curriculum from the ground up,” says Kenneth Young, vice-president of Chinese University. “We have a chance to rethink pedagogy.”

Some Hong Kong institutions are looking to create a set of courses required of all undergraduates, similar to Columbia University’s well-known core curriculum. Others have studied the undergraduate programs at leading American institutions, such as the University of Chicago, MIT, and the University of California at Berkeley.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is broadening its focus by creating a China-studies major, its first in the humanities and social sciences. It has hired sociologist James Z. Lee from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to lead the new program.

One possible obstacle to recruitment is Hong Kong’s low profile in the West.

“I’ve never had a faculty member come to me and, say, ‘tell me about Hong Kong’. On my radar, it’s not there,” says Terrence J. McDonald, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at Michigan. He said Lee is the only person from Michigan to receive a job offer from Hong Kong.

Still, three universities here – Hong Kong University, the University of Science and Technology, and Chinese University – are among the top 100 institutions in the annual international rankings compiled by Britain’s Times Higher Education.

Some recent hires, from Australia and Europe as well as the US, say the energy and momentum going into this radical overhaul, at a time when universities are cutting back in the West, adds to Hong Kong’s appeal. They also like the fact that they can work on issues of relevance to the region for example, prevention of infectious diseases.

The global financial crisis has also helped. “It used to be we’d send out three offers and one accepted,” says Young, of Chinese University. “Now three out of three accept.”

Abundant research support is another draw. The University Grants Committee distributes nearly $84 million in grants every year, with the bulk going to biology, medicine, and engineering. The committee encourages research on topics of particular relevance to Asia, such avian flu and genetically modified rice. Nearly 40 per cent of professors who apply for funds receive them.

Some recruits, however, may experience an uncertain welcome. Hong Kong is notoriously cramped, and its universities are no exception. To accommodate the additional students, the universities are jointly building a dormitory in the New Territories, far from central Hong Kong.

But providing additional classroom space will be tricky. Some institutions are discussing educating students in morning and afternoon shifts, beginning in 2012.

That could mean odd or extended hours for faculty members, says Leslie Lo, dean of the education school at Chinese University. “We already work evenings. And some of us teach Saturdays. The next step would be to teach Saturday afternoons.”

The switch could prove chaotic if universities don’t achieve their hiring goals by 2012.

“We will try, but it will be difficult to recruit so many good academics within a narrow time span,” says Arthur Mak, vice-president and dean of students at Polytechnic University, the territory’s largest institution. “We will have to phase them in gradually.”

Given those uncertainties, administrators hope that matching American salaries will help lure talent. A junior faculty member in computer science at the University of Science and Technology, for example, makes about $119,000.

“We are competitive to the top universities in the US,” says Roland T. Chin, a vice-president at the university. “That’s our benchmark.”

Indeed, some administrators say their fiercest competitor now is Singapore, also enticing scholars from the West with attractive packages.

Bogdanov assumed his post at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last year. But if his department’s Web page is any indication, his surprise at finding himself here hasn’t worn off. A link he labelled “an attempt to explain where I came from” leads to a map of the world, with countries on four continents highlighted in blue.

Being a foreigner was easier in the US, Bogdanov says, because of its multiplicity of ethnic groups. For the most part, though, his transition to Hong Kong has been smooth. “I’m excited to be here,” he says. “There’s a drive to make the universities better and improve academic research.”

David Rosenbloom, who took an unpaid leave in January from American University, in Washington, to assume a senior professorship in public administration at the City University of Hong Kong, echoes that sentiment. He was given nice housing a four-minute walk from the campus, and Hong Kong’s high concentration of universities yields a vibrant intellectual life, he says.

Being in Asia has an added benefit, says Rosenbloom. “Public administration in the US is building better bureaucrats,” he says. “It’s not a high-prestige field. And academe overall … there are all the professor jokes.”

In Hong Kong, things are different: “Academe is higher prestige.”

It is that enthusiasm that makes administrators think Hong Kong’s plans could work. “It will take us a few more years to get to a knowledge-based economy,” says Chin. “But this is part of the transition.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education

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