Reforms needed to enhance quality of private universities
This article appeared originally in the China Daily on 17 June, 2021.
Authors: Victor Kwok, Head of Education and Youth Research and Edward Choi, Research Assistant at Our Hong Kong Foundation
It is well-known that the eight universities funded by the University Grants Committee are better developed than the self-financed universities in Hong Kong. In Europe and the United States, the quality of teaching in the private sector far exceeds that of the public sector, with private universities such as MIT, Stanford, and Harvard topping the QS World University Rankings 2021. Why, then, have private universities in Hong Kong failed to capitalize on their flexibility, autonomy and competitive advantage? More importantly, what could be the solution?
At present, private higher education providers can be registered under the Post Secondary Colleges Ordinance (Cap 320) or the Education Ordinance (Cap 279). The regulatory requirements imposed by the two ordinances differ in areas such as accommodation, student enrolment, and teacher recruitment, rendering fair competition between institutions difficult. However, the Education Bureau has recently proposed transferring the self-financing sector to Cap 320 and amending the relevant provisions. This is expected to reform the education system and restore public confidence in the private sector. Unfortunately, the EDB has not explained which ordinance will govern the private institutions affiliated with UGC-funded universities, which could be an obstacle to the parallel development of private and subsidized tertiary education.
Moreover, the EDB plans to abolish the requirement of "including major courses extending over at least 4 years" in Cap 320, to provide more flexibility for the self-financing sector. In particular, Massive Open Online Courses and micro-credentials are catching on worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling students to join programs offered by internationally renowned universities at their own pace and according to their own interests. Academia and industry both should seize this opportunity to work together and design programs that target relevant professional skills, so that students can obtain suitable qualifications and workers can engage in lifelong learning.
Currently, resources are not allocated efficiently in the private sector: On one hand, some programs are highly competitive, leaving students with no option but to settle for their second choice, which might not fit in with their career plan; on the other hand, dropout rates are high on some courses, wasting resources that could have benefited other students. Therefore, the EDB should empower the private sector to accommodate applicants using non-standard entry according to circumstances, in order to nurture the right talent for our society.
The quality of teachers in the private sector varies. Apart from equipping private universities with better staff, the amended ordinance should allow more industry leaders to become guest lecturers and professors, promoting collaboration between businesses and schools. Studies in Australia have proved that by engaging professionals, universities can introduce the latest applied technologies into the classroom. For example, a partnership of Queensland's aviation industry with the Department of Education, local high schools, and universities has produced modules designed by industry leaders and training delivered by practitioners. This has significantly boosted students' motivation to learn, as the curriculum is closely aligned with their future careers.
Academic programs are seldom offered in collaboration with the industry, and teachers have little opportunity for continuing professional development (CPD), making it difficult for them to keep up with industry trends. In contrast, the Australian and British governments have provided many incentives for teachers to complete relevant training, to ensure that those working in technical and vocational education and training are kept abreast of the latest industry developments. Hong Kong should learn from their examples and develop CPD programs that meet local teachers' needs.
To achieve the best educational outcomes and strengthen their positioning, private higher education providers should not be planning behind closed doors. In 2019, the Ministry of National Development in Singapore launched the iBuildSG LEAD (Leadership Engagement and Development) framework, encouraging collaboration between industry leaders, academic institutions, the Building and Construction Authority, and the Construction Industry Joint Committee, to ensure that the curricula of local universities remain relevant and up to date. We believe effective partnerships between businesses and schools will lead to classroom activities and internship programs that match the needs of the industry and bring us a more productive workforce.
In the coming two decades, many new jobs will emerge, which will require skills not taught under the status quo. The EDB should harness the amendments to the Post Secondary Colleges Ordinance to help private institutions concentrate their resources on their areas of expertise, thereby enhancing the competitive advantage of the sector as a whole.