Some years ago a friend of mine who had reached some eminence in her profession and had a Master’s degree was invited to join one of our more prestigious local universities as a teacher. “Go for it,” I said, having had a lot of fun as a university teacher.

This summer she was told that her contract would be renewed for a year. She had by then become so fed up with the whole game that she offered to leave by Christmas. Teaching in Hong Kong universities has become much less pleasant. This is a serious matter because an unhappy teacher is unlikely to provide a pleasant and educational class.

What the universities’ PR people call the “undergraduate learning experience” has deteriorated as a result, despite the proliferation of flash new buildings, educational technology, and elaborate bureaucratic mechanisms intended to measure and promote “teaching quality”. Students are grouchy. I sympathise. What went wrong?

Students attend a lecture at PolyU. File photo: PolyU.

Part of the problem dates back several decades, to when the UK government of the day discovered a cheap way of expanding access to university education: they relabelled a large number of existing polytechnics and colleges as universities. Suddenly people who had merely been post-secondary students became university students, to the great joy of their parents.

This innovation was loyally copied by the Hong Kong colonial government. But there was a misunderstanding at the heart of it. The planners knew that many of the courses provided in polys and colleges concerned practical matters and led to professional qualifications. They supposed that this would continue, and these activities would benefit from the increased respect which came from being conducted in universities.

This was not what happened. From the point of view of the staff and senior management of a newly promoted institution, the way forward was to become as much like a university as possible, thereby increasing the prestige of the school and the prospects of its staff moving to what were sometimes tactlessly called the “real” universities. It is a characteristic of universities that they concentrate on theoretical and prestigious matters, and their staff regard research as their main activity, whatever the taxpayers think they are paying for.

So each newly promoted institution pruned its prospectus of anything which did not lead to a degree, and purged its staff of anyone who was teaching such things. Possession of a PhD became a prerequisite for appointment and the production of research became a prerequisite for promotion.

The prestige pyramid

In retrospect I now realise how lucky I was. I arrived at what was then Baptist College in a brief window of opportunity between the time when staff had to be practising Christians and the time when they had to be practising PhDs. People who arrived two years before me were expected to attend a weekly service. People who arrived two years after were told to get a PhD if they had not got one already. Having many years of professional experience, they were told, merely got you the job; it had no significance in the university value system.

File Photo: HKFP.

Indeed J.K. Galbraith pointed out many years ago that universities did not like people who engaged in real-world activities. They were assessed, as a result, by outsiders who were not members of the tribe and did not share its superstitions. This made it difficult to place them on the prestige pyramid, a problem most easily solved by leaving them at the bottom. So it has always been.

This disconnection from the real world explains why so many university graduates finish up in non-graduate jobs.

The next problem was the solution, or non-solution, of the great research university question. A consultancy pointed out that while Hong Kong might need a large number of places teaching undergraduates, it did not really need a large number of places doing the sort of research which universities do. This implied that some local universities would become research universities, and some would become non-research universities, a fate for which nobody was going to volunteer.

The consultants recommended that there should be two research universities. Prestige and connections reduced the candidates to a short list of three: Hong Kong University (HKU), the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Getting from three to two proved beyond the capacity of what had become the Education Bureau. HKU was not going to be changed in any way because it was confident of being one of the two. The two rural candidates were urged to merge, and refused. Even an attempt to fold the IEd into CUHK to produce a bigger candidate was a failure. The stalemate was widely, if surreptitiously, welcomed by the other universities, which all retained their “research” status pending a resolution of the impasse.

Research funding

The solution eventually adopted was that instead of research funding being distributed more or less fairly between universities, it would be distributed on a competitive basis. University staff would apply to a central fund for research grants. The intended result of this was that “research universities” would emerge from the competition and the others, having no funds for it, would give up research. But this was not what happened at all.

All the universities, however humble, devoted much effort and ingenuity to attracting as much research funding as possible. All, to varying extents, succeeded. The possibility that there might be a cost to this was not considered. An academic is a person who, when asked if you should turn left or right at the next junction, replies “both”.

City University of Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

A popular trick is to reward anyone who gets a research grant with a reduced teaching load. This is indisputably successful in encouraging research. Indeed I occasionally meet local academics who have been so successful in playing this part of the system that they no longer teach at all.

The flip side of this is that their less research-happy colleagues have to do more teaching. This is achieved by longer hours, and also by larger classes. When I started as a course planner there was much soul-searching over the possible dangers of having more than 100 people in a class. Populations of 300 or more are now common even in supposedly top universities.

The four-year degree

Another unhelpful innovation was the four-year degree. This was not, although it took people a long time to get their heads around this, an extra year. What happened was that the universities took over responsibility for what had previously been Form Seven. It was decided that this was too early for the sort of specialisation that people go to university for. The year would be filled with “general education,” which would offer a wide-ranging discursive approach suitable to the upbringing of gentlefolk.

Some of this was achieved by a sort of academic forced shopping. You must take one course in each school or faculty, for example. Some of it involved courses specially designed for the purpose. Some of it involved a judgement that everyone should be required to do, say, two languages.

All these ways of dealing with the problem produced difficulties. Supposedly elementary courses designed for people who were going to major in logical positivism might not be elementary enough, if inflicted on people who had signed up for sewerage studies. Also, the offering department might not welcome the influx of tourists.

Courses specially designed for general education implied the existence of people qualified to teach them. But university staff now have to sport a PhD, a desperately narrow and concentrated research degree which commonly takes seven years. This is no preparation for teaching a wide-ranging survey subject and indeed the survivor may be reluctant to attempt such a course.

Making a language compulsory produces a huge surge in demand which the department named after the language concerned is not equipped for or interested in. Universities have devoted much ingenuity to providing massed language instruction without increasing the number of staff who are counted in research surveys. The most amusing solution was devised by the university which had, and still has, a fleet of “visiting scholars” with suspiciously local names. They teach the compulsory English courses.

Baptist University. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The upshot of all this is that times have changed. I remember the late Dr Lam Kwok-wai, who was head of the Department of Communication at BU at the time, addressing a room full of disgruntled students. This was soon after the Tiananmen Massacre and Dr Lam, as a well-known left-winger, had become a figure of suspicion. “Whatever you think of me,” he said, “you must not doubt one thing: in this department the students are our first priority.”

You would have to be very optimistic to tell undergraduates that now. They are likely to be subjected to huge classes, taught by people who are either overloaded, not interested in teaching, or both. Many of their fellow students will be there because of some curriculum-planning wrinkle and are not interested in the material offered either.

If there are seminars for small groups they will be presided over by graduate students working as a condition of their scholarships. Lectures commonly go on for three hours, a monstrous travesty of teaching wildly at variance with the results of research into what students and teachers can handle. Those who graduate discover that they have qualified for a better class of unemployment.

The attractions of higher education in the UK are elementary and obvious. The ordeal may be the same, but the duration is only three years.

I wonder if local vice-chancellors should have more urgent things to worry about than the contents of their notice boards.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.