By lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen

In recent years, criticism has been levelled at a number of higher education sector issues in Hong Kong. These issues include the selection of candidates to serve as pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the HKU Council, and the appointment of a number of controversial figures as council members in various universities.

These issues underline the urgency and necessity of reforming the governance structures of our universities.

eliot hall hku
File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Amid persistent efforts on the part of teaching staff, students, alumni and the general public, the HKU Council decided last year to invite Professor Sir Malcolm Grant (chancellor of the University of York, England), Professor William C. Kirby (Harvard University, US) and Mr Peter Van Tu Nguyen (a former High Court judge of the HKSAR) to form an independent three-person review panel to review HKU’s governance.

The review panel has since completed its report. A number of media organisations have gathered that the panel has made extremely important recommendations for reform, for example: proposing that the position of chancellor – taken by the chief executive – be changed to one of an honorary nature, that the chancellor’s power to appoint the chairman and members of the council and to award honorary degrees be devolved to the council, and that the composition of the council should remain unchanged.

The direction of such reform proposals is broadly in line with the views of members of the public. However, HKU has yet to publicise the “Report of the Review Panel on University Governance.”

See also: HKU Council establishes independent panel to review university governance

In the past, HKU handled similar review reports using a well-established process. Back on February 7, 2003, a three-person review panel – comprising Professor John Niland (former president of the University of New South Wales, Australia), Professor Neil Rudenstine (former president of Harvard University) and then chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang– submitted to the council a report entitled “Fit for Purpose: A review of governance and management structures at The University of Hong Kong.”

HKU University of Hong Kong governance review panel
William Kirby, Malcolm Grant and Peter Van Tu Nguyen.

Seventeen days after the submission of the “Fit for Purpose” report, the council formally considered its recommendations and did three things. Firstly, it publicised the report. Secondly, the council established an ad doc task group, which – during a two-month consultation period with the HKU community and the general public – took the initiative in seeking stakeholders’ comments and attended 16 meetings and forums organised by various bodies of the university, including the senate, faculty boards, staff, students, and alumni.

Finally, on April 29, the council formally accepted the report and established an implementation working party to implement reforms relating to the university’s governance and management structure.

Compared with what happened in 2003, HKU’s has handled its newest report with a lack of transparency – it has not allowed any participation from the university’s teaching staff, students and alumni.

To date, the newest review report has not been publicised, nor has any consultation started. Even though HKU’s teaching staff, students and alumni are the most important stakeholders, the only way they could get an idea of the contents of the report is to rely on what has been reported in the mass media. How ironic!

hku gate
File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Many questions remain unanswered surrounding the working party established after the council considered the report at its meeting on February 28. What are the problems the working party is supposed to deal with? How much longer will it take to tackle the problems? Will there be a consultation exercise? When will there be further developments?

If the university’s teaching staff, students and alumni are kept totally in the dark, how would it be possible for them to offer any views or comments? Refusing to seek stakeholders’ views, and establishing a “working party” instead of a “task group” will inevitably lead to ridicule: HKU will be seen as working behind closed doors and conducting a “black box operation.”

See also: Feature: Taking politics off campus? Postgrad HKU Council hopefuls debate governance and academic freedom

Given its status as one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in Hong Kong, we naturally have high expectations of HKU’s performance. Once again, I would like to urge HKU’s Council to – in line with past practice – publicise the review panel’s report and conduct extensive consultation on it.

University governance should – as the review report of 2003 was titled – be “Fit for Purpose” and move forward. There is absolutely no justification for university governance to move backward!

Ip Kin-yuen is an HKU Court member, the convener of HKU Alumni Concern Group, and a Hong Kong legislative councillor.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.