By Aston Law
In November of last year, Lingnan University’s class of 2015 celebrated their graduation amid funereal white flowers. Angry placards were raised in the audience. Paper aeroplanes littered the stage, all bearing the slogan ‘I want real qualifications’. The students were protesting, and their anger pierced through the otherwise congratulatory spirit of the occasion.
The target of the protest was the University Council, and the appointment of pro-Beijing figures to it by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
For the past two years, protests have been a common feature at many university graduation ceremonies across Hong Kong. Protesting at graduation is seen as an opportunity to embarrass CY Leung, who — following the colonial tradition of installing political heads of state as university figureheads — is Chancellor of all public universities in the city. Li Mei-ting, convener of the Lingnan Alumni Concern Group, was among those protesting. “The paper planes are for CY Leung,” Li said. “He is the Chancellor, his name is printed on our certificates, yet he does not turn up at any of our commencements.”
In response, the council are set to discuss the setting up of a task force to review council membership at its meeting on Tuesday, January 12th.
The University Council is the highest executive body of the school; it assigns departmental budgets and determines the direction of the school’s development. The Chief Executive has great influence on the council: he can directly appoint 18 (of the 33) seats, and members do not have to be from the University or even in education. Colonial Governors acting as Chancellors rarely exercised such power, understanding the role to be a chiefly honorary one. Since the 1997 Handover, however, Chief Executives have been directly appointing more and more council members. To date, only eight council members are from the University itself, making up less than one-fourth of the council.
CY Leung’s council member choices have not done anything to appease students’ concerns. One of the new members, Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, caused outrage last May when he suggested to RTHK City Forum that the government should stop funding the Lingnan University Student Union. Ho wanted the Student Union dismissed for organising a campus concert at which a cover of ‘Fuck Tha Police’ (a well-known hip-hop song advocating resistance to police brutality) was performed. A month after his council appointment in October, tensions flared again when Ho walked out of a council consultation hosted by the Student Union. He accused the students of insulting his wife.
“I don’t know if [Ho’s appointment] has any implications,” said Prof. Annie Chan Hau-nung, one of the three new council members elected by the school. She acknowledged that CY Leung must have known about the situation between Ho and the students: “It is obvious that the Chief Executive is challenging the orientation of the Student Union. But at the same time, Ho has a certain status … I think the Chief Executive has other considerations as well.”
Institutions of higher education across Hong Kong share the same problem of council under-representation. The Chief Executive can directly appoint 15 to 18 council members at the Hong Kong Baptist University, the Open University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Institute of Education and the Hong Kong Academic of Performing Arts. Up to 83% of their school council seats are appointed this way. In many other universities around the world, external members generally make up less than 20% of their council seats.
“We need sufficient school members to take part in the school’s governance,” Chan said. “They can explain the situation of the school to external parties in the council whom are not working in the education industry. There are not enough school members in the council right now, causing an imbalanced view within.”
If university staff are under-represented on the council, students are all the more so: the council reserves a single seat for the Student Union President. Discontent around the issue forced the council to form a Review Panel in 2013, aimed at strengthening student participation on the council and on university matters in general. The Review Panel website has not been updated since November 2014. “We have held some meetings,” the Secretary to the Review Panel, Monica Tsang Tai Mo-oi, said on the phone. “We had some recommendations and we are still in discussion.” Their last meeting was in April 2015.
Li found this lack of action hard to accept. “I lived on campus for two years and am studying a master’s degree here, but I have never heard any news from the Review Panel,” she said. “I think it is just a PR move.”
Alumni have almost no role on the council. The Lingnan Education Organization (LEO) can nominate seven members onto the council, drawing from a pool of Lingnan primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and the University itself. But because this requires first joining the Lingnan University Alumni Association and then becoming a member of LEO, opportunities to be elected this way are slim.
Making things worse, the Lingnan University Council has also been plagued by charges of diploma falsification. Lifelong College, a private school founded by council member Alex Li Ye-lick, is being investigated by the Police Force’s Commercial Crime Bureau on allegations that it is a diploma mill. Lingnan University’s Associate Vice-President Herdip Singh resigned last November after being accused of plagiarism in his doctoral dissertation; his degree was received at Lifelong College.
In response to enquiries from the press, Lingnan University has stated that council activities, including the appointment of members by the Chief Executive, cannot be changed or overruled by the University.
“Regardless of the truth of the allegations, us students and alumni have no power to interfere,” said Li Mei-ting. “Our absence on the school board is a more serious problem than the allegations themselves.”
On the eve of the first Lingnan University Council meeting with all its new members, Prof. Chan is pessimistic about how much her membership will allow her to accomplish. “There is very little I can do; we are just the minority in the council”, she said. “But at least I can try to make some noise.”
Chan has started a petition pushing for greater student and alumni participation in council operations, which has garnered over 100 signatures from Lingnan academic staff. She is also a member of the Scholar’s Alliance of Academic Freedom, an organisation formed amid the furore over Prof. Johannes Chan’s blocked bid for pro-vice-chancellorship at the University of Hong Kong. “This is an uphill battle,” Chan said. “We have to strive and defend what we believe is important.”
As for Li, she wants students to join hands with teachers and alumni to fight for greater representation on the University Council. In an attempt to catalyse discussion on the issue, she and other alumni have plans to publish a book on the identity of Lingnan students and culture. In the long run, however, her advice is to hunker down: “This will be a long war”, she says.
Aston Law writes about the ups and downs of the Asian city as well as stories from around the world. He was a regular contributor to the Commercial Radio Hong Kong website from 2013 to 2014. He is studying Journalism at the University of Hong Kong.