As they sink slowly down the international rankings our local universities seem to have increasing problems with their student unions. This is suspicious.

I had better declare a sort of interest here. Many years ago when I was the head of a department in a local university it became known that I planned to appoint a particular person as a teacher. One of my colleagues came into my office looking very worried. “Did you realise,” he asked, “that she used to be a student union president.”

CUHK Chinese university of hong kong protest march nov 19 2020 20201119
File Photo: RL/Studio Incendo.

“Yes, I know she was a student union president,” I replied, “and so was I.” Which sorted out that objection easily enough.

So it is not surprising, perhaps, that I think universities ought to have student unions, should try – I realise this will not always be easy – to be on good terms with them, and should recognise that students have the right to a collective voice in decisions that affect them.

Clearly this is no longer the universal view among local university administrators. In February, the Chinese University withdrew administrative support and the right to borrow venues from its student union, claiming that the union had made false allegations about the university and used the campus for political propaganda.

Baptist University
Hong Kong Baptist University. Photo: GovHK.

In May, The University of Hong Kong stopped collecting subscriptions for its student union, with a similar complaint. This week, Lingnan University barred its student union from mass emailing students and threatened further action because a circular on the system had mentioned “Wuhan pneumonia” in the Chinese version of a circular about Covid-19. 

All three universities complained that their student unions had become “more” or “highly” politicised in recent years. This could be considered rather unsurprising. What did they expect?

I realise there are some local peculiarities here. Unlike the general run of UK student unions, where candidates for office run as individuals, student union elections in Hong Kong usually feature teams who seek election as a group. This means that in times of political excitement they are likely to have a coherent view and feel they have a “mandate” to push it on behalf of their fellow students.

Also, most UK university student unions have a building of their own which contains a bar (indispensable) and such other rooms – dancehalls, debating chambers, offices etc – as they have space and inclination for.

CUHKSU Student union press conference
File Photo: via CC2.0,

This means that the election of student leaders is not a purely political matter. The ability to run a boozer efficiently is also important.

Even if this function is performed elsewhere the union is responsible for distributing funds to student societies and sporting groups. Any sign that this important function is being sacrificed to politics results in the sort of “mass meetings” which agitators commonly dominate suddenly being overwhelmed by an influx of irate sportspeople. So there are limits.

Still, there are some universal features here. Students are adults. They are entitled to political opinions. They are also entitled to a role in the running of those aspects of the university which cannot plausibly be described as requiring the attention of a PhD. 

Like other groups in the university community, students may obstinately cling to views which seem to academics or administrators to be stupid, naïve or dysfunctional. Mature members of the university should accept the obligation to try to resolve the resulting conflicts in a way which preserves the sense of a community of scholars in which differences of opinion are allowed and respected.

And it is no good complaining that the unions are more political. They are more political because students are more political. And students are more political because they realise they have been deceived. 

protest student human chain
Hong Kong students stage a human chain protest on September 26, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

We old cynics may always have suspected that “one country two systems”, “a high degree of autonomy”, “gradual progress towards universal suffrage” and “50 years of no change” were mere baubles intended to distract us while one set of colonial shackles was exchanged for another one. Young people grew up with these promises.

If university leaders want to keep politics off their campuses they should start by looking in the mirror. You cannot claim to be a sanctuary from politics while purging your staff. And why was it necessary for university heads, or most of them, to express an opinion on the merits of the national security law?

None of them are lawyers. Their opinions on the matter are no more knowledgable or interesting than those of the manager of a bank or a brothel.

Public displays of affection for Big Brother are unnecessary, and incompatible with the autonomy which universities legitimately claim.  

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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.