Higher education development in China: Lessons from HK

By Mathew Wong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, October 13, 2018
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As human capital is key to economic development, the strengthening of higher education is a Chinese priority. An increase in the number of top universities can enhance the quality of students in preparation for a knowledge-based economy, as well as decreasing the reliance on foreign-educated students. 

Indeed, universities in China are doing well. According to the 2019 university ranking by QS, for the first time, Tsinghua University became one of the world's top 20 institutions, ranking at 17. Peking University also climbed eight places to 30. Both also feature in the top 30 of the U.K.'s Times Higher Education World University Ranking in 2018. 

Although the top universities in the mainland rank higher than their counterparts in Hong Kong, a recent trend in the latter is still noteworthy. Tertiary education in Hong Kong has a competitive funding model building on examples commonly found in the West. 

As China seeks to further develop its higher education sector, focusing on improvements across the board instead of just the traditional top ones, the Hong Kong's experiences are also valuable for the mainland.

Public funding for universities is distributed through the University Grants Committee, constituting an average 40 percent of each university's overall income. Naturally, all institutions are eagerly looking at ways to increase this sizable source of income. 

The allocation of funding is primarily decided by an assessment called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), closely building on a similar exercise in the United Kingdom. The RAE is a competitive assessment of the research output of an institution's staff based on a rigorous external review.

This then determines if an institution will get a larger or smaller share of the competitive funding provided by the University Grants Committee.

Although the original purpose of the RAE, conducted every six years, is meant to rate the performance of department-based units within each institution, in practice, the assessment has largely become an individual performance indicator. 

For university staff, failure to obtain top rating categories as defined by the framework means they are not bringing in additional resources for their department, and may well be losing out to competing units in other universities. Needless to say, these "underperforming" members might undergo pressure from their department or even leaders from higher up the hierarchy to improve. 

It is indeed increasingly common for the career of university faculty, especially those in more junior positions, to be decided on this research factor alone.

Of equal importance is teaching quality. The idea behind universities, after all, is to provide for the combination of cutting-edge research and the education of future generations. The grant system in Hong Kong also takes teaching into consideration, but in a largely non-competitive manner, unlike the research component. 

This might be for the good reason that teaching quality is very difficult to assess comparatively across different disciplines, teaching styles and subjects; equally, students might have various needs and qualities. Research output, on the other hand, can arguably be objectively assessed in terms of scholarly merits.

The outcome of this model is not desirable. Every university is increasingly pushing their staff to increase their research activities in both quantity and quality, even if this means teaching suffers. Short-term and ad-hoc teaching positions are created to free up the "precious" time of faculty members to focus on research. 

Research performance is, in many cases, the sole deciding factor of contract renewal, regardless of teaching quality or other services to the university. Such a system has led to two significant adverse consequences: an academic sector with increasing job insecurity through uncertainty over contract renewal and the surge in short-term positions, and an environment that encourages university staff to focus on research and research alone. 

The quality of teaching, though often discussed as a matter of formality, is sometimes of secondary importance, except for those who are passionate about teaching. 

Of course, a competitive system has a lot of advantages, as it provides for an objective forum for resource allocation, especially when resources are scarce. However, good policymaking should also minimize the downside of a system while maintaining its merits. As China develops its flourishing higher education sector and faces competition from top universities around the world, a similar case could emerge. 

Indeed, my initial observation of the recent development in the mainland has provided confirmation of this. It is high time for educators and policymakers in higher education to re-think the purpose of university education and the balance between research and teaching.

Dr. Mathew Wong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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