What is the nature of a university? Since the times of the great Prussian educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt it has been regarded as a community of scholars and students who on a basis of freedom and equality pursue knowledge together.

Clearly this is not the way they see things at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The students had a noticeboard. Some of the notices which appeared on it aroused the disapproval of the Poly U management. They had the notice board covered in red paper and announced that they had “resumed” control over it.

Bulletin board at Hong Kong Polytechnic University covered in red paper. Photo: Stand News.

The students protested. Some of them tried to visit the university’s top administrators to protest personally. The university backed down and restored the noticeboard to the students’ union.

It also brought disciplinary proceedings against four students who, it said, had “misbehaved by assaulting school staff, refusing to comply with orders, and exhibiting conduct in detriment to the school’s reputation.” Some of them had “defamed” an administrator.

The four included a master’s degree student, who was expelled; the past president of the student union, who was suspended for a year; the student member of the university council, who was sentenced to 120 hours of community service; and the union’s external affairs person, who got 60 hours.

How these decisions were made we do not know and we are not going to know. The relevant committee meets in private and the Poly U refuses to discuss the matter out of respect for the privacy of the condemned students, a convenient refuge.

Now I have a sort of personal interest in this, which I had better insert briefly here. I was myself, at different times, a master’s student, a student union president, and an elected student member of a university council. I was also, for a while, the chairman of a university disciplinary panel.

Lam Wing-hang and Gerald Ho, two of the students being punished. Photo: inmediahk.net.

This was all in another country and another century, and it certainly feels like it when compared with recent events here. While I was a master’s student I participated in a weekend-long occupation of the entire London School of Economics. Nobody was hauled before a tribunal of any kind as a result, though the school did decide to upgrade its gates.

While I was a student union president the students occupied the administrative building of our university for the best part of a week. This might have led to a chasm opening between staff and students, as it did to some extent at LSE.

We nevertheless managed, due to hard work by people on both sides of the dispute who thought it was important, to remain on speaking terms generally and, again, there was no disciplinary action of any kind.

While I was the student rep on the council there was an academic strike. Again, no sequel, at least for the student participants.

No doubt some people in Hong Kong will regard this history generally, and the fact that I was not personally expelled, as examples of that laxity which leads to chaos in decadent Western democracies. How much more bracing it would have been if everyone concerned had been sent to a re-education camp!

London School of Economics and Political Science. Photo: LSE.ac.uk.

This is unfair. The idea of a university education is, as Humboldt put it, to “enable students to become autonomous individuals and world citizens by developing their own reasoning powers in an environment of academic freedom…  Knowledge should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism rather than authority, tradition, or dogma.”

These aspirations have implications for the way a university is run. It is not a kindergarten, nor even a secondary school. Students are adults who are entitled to their own opinions and also to human rights, of which freedom of speech is one.

If these opinions are expressed strongly or physically, that is a problem which the university as a community needs to work on. Swift resort to punishing a few individuals is not a solution; it is a contribution to the problem.

I realise there is an unfortunate history here. When the polytechnics were polytechnics they were managed in conformity to a long if rather inglorious tradition imported from the UK: students were regarded as passive raw material being processed down the production line by a staff of academic serfs under the rule of a despotic management. Becoming a university should have changed all that. Did it?

There may also be a cultural problem. Maybe some of the more conservative administrators think that staff-student relations should proceed along the lines indicated by the old geezer with the white beard in Kill Bill who punishes a cheeky pupil by poking her eye out.

Or it may be that some people are trying to get ahead of mainlandisation, as it were.

Owen Li, Gerald Ho and Lam Wing-hang protesting against school management in October 2018. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

Whatever the reason, it cannot be disputed that the Poly U is not looking good at the moment. It seems that the arrival of ten students in administrative territory is regarded as an invasion, and that the reaction of senior administrators to a student knocking on the door is to lock the door and dive under the desk.

There is no need for this. Students can be unreasonable and noisy but they don’t bite.

Some serious thought is needed to the matter of discipline. In academic matters, it is clear that a university’s teaching staff have to exert the powers needed to uphold standards: to prevent cheating, to ensure fair assessment, to design the curriculum, to keep exam papers secret and so on.

In non-academic matters the situation is rather different. All members of the university community have a stake in the preservation of peace and property. There is no reason to suppose that academics are particularly good at this. In our system – where the JUPAS system gives one take-it-or-leave-it offer – we can hardly say that a student’s admission implies consent to being subject to the forensic fumbling of a bunch of amateurs.

If the complaint is of a crime then it should be passed to the police unless everyone concerned agrees to an internal solution. Defaming a vice president is not a crime; it is an exercise of free speech and if the vice president objects he should be left to sue like everyone else.

The offence of “conduct in detriment of the school’s reputation” is a piece of nonsense. People conduct themselves in ways detrimental to their schools’ reputations all the time. Professors fake their research records, fake their current activities, have affairs with other professors’ wives or – worse – with students.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Photo: Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

It is often said in university PR circles that every university in Hong Kong has an undiscovered scandal it is sitting on in the fervent hope that it will never surface. Most of us would have forgotten about the Poly U’s little fracas if allowed to do so.

Sentencing people to hours of community service should be left to proper judges unless the Poly U’s disciplinary panel is prepared to go the whole hog in preserving the legal rights of potential convicts, up to and including the right to legal representation.

This whole affair would be a disaster without the whiff of politics hanging over it, but alas whiff there is. The Poly U’s sudden enthusiasm for censorship followed student enthusiasm for Hong Kong independence.

This matter of independence is a minority pursuit of no practical significance and its main attraction is that it gets up the nostrils of politicians, mainland officials and other people for whom students rightly have little respect.

It is an exercise of free speech. No doubt exercising this right for the purposes of provocation could be considered immature behaviour. The response to it should not be equally immature. The answer to incorrect speech is correct speech, not censorship.

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.