Mortal Blow: HKU’s reputation takes a hit with UK students, profs

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Disputes, political interference, civil disobedience, academic freedom. The academic reputation of HKU abroad matters both to students and professors. In Britain, source of students and academics, the question is if the reputational hit is a mortal blow or just a flesh wound.


Numerous disputes over the governance and management of Hong Kong University and concerns about political pressure in Hong Kong’s inner circles of academia have brought the status of academic freedom and freedom of speech to the attention of international academics. The rejection of the appointment of a proposed vice chancellor, student protests, legal action and arrests have not gone unnoticed by the international academic community. It raises the question of whether the news is having an impact on the international reputation of Hong Kong’s universities in general, and HKU’s reputation in particular.

An investigation was undertaken to discover if the headlines in Hong Kong impacted on the thinking of students and academics. Given that University of Hong Kong’s current head, Peter Mathieson, was recruited from a UK university, the perception of HKU in the UK is important.

Hong Kong recruits students and professors from the UK. Its students will be accepted at UK institutions, in part, based on the reputation of schools here. In short, reputation matters.


Professors weigh in

Dr. George Ogola is a senior lecturer of Journalism and an expert on Media and Democratisation at the University of Central Lancashire. Speaking to the general issue of academic freedom, he said, “The stories were significant to the international academic community as they had some impact, directly and indirectly on general academic scholarship.” He claims that universities should promote academic democracy, as “knowledge generation cannot take place without such freedom being guaranteed.”

Dr Ogola continues “the developments are worrying and set a bad precedent for international scholars wanting to work or research in Hong Kong. The problem however is when the habit [of allowing political actors to interfere with academia] becomes institutionalised”.

Dr. Francois Nel, an award winning journalist and director of Journalism Leaders programme in the University of Central Lancashire, UK, agrees with his colleague Dr. Ongola that “academic freedom is important.”

Even in far away Britain, academics have distant Hong Kong on their radar and to them the HKU situation is not completely unexpected.

Ian Turner, a Senior lecturer in Law at the University of Central Lancashire and an expert on international human rights, including civil socio-economic and cultural rights, argues that although China has a poor human rights record, Hong Kong is quite different.

“It is tragic what is going on with Hong Kong, but I am not actually surprised about it. China has a long way to go and certainly freedom of speech wouldn’t be their foremost priority. I know Saudi Arabia has poor human rights records as well and I would not go there – some states in America can impose the death penalty, I wouldn’t go there either. Even though Hong Kong has been a part of China for 20 years or so I would still think twice before going there,” he explains.


Students say…

Students consider their freedom of speech and expression important, but when it comes to education, many would still choose a less democratic university if its stated values centre on students’ personal entitlement to freedoms, if the students are free to research and publish regardless of their political views, their field of research or the conclusion of their dissertation.

Thanasis Pexlivanides, a physics student in the University of Central Lancashire said, “I would still study in Hong Kong. Although the latest developments do not look good, Hong Kong University’s programs are considered to be amongst the best academic programs you can get out there”.

A Master’s researcher based in the British University of Central Lancashire, Ms Ecem Kocadal, is currently investigating U.N and E.U policy regarding Cyprus. She argues that, “political pressure and the rejection of democratic processes can harm an institution and a research itself. I do like the idea of fighting for my ideas though. Turkey is almost the same. No Cypriot would go there if they would like to research about Cyprus or the Armenian genocide.” In other words, suppression in some areas is fine, as long as my research isn’t affected.

On the other hand, Lü Jing Zhong, a Hong Kong native and Accounting and Finance student at the University of Manchester says, “academic freedom within a university is important to me. I believe that the role of a university is to provide a platform that fosters critical discussions amongst intellectuals, thereby spreading knowledge and generating original ideas. This can only be achieved when academics are free to express their views without restrictions from external factors, including age, sex, religious and politics. Only then can an institution enable talented and passionate intellectuals to engage fully in the quest of knowledge without unnecessary restrictions, thereby leading to academic excellence. Therefore, academic freedom within a university is of prime importance, and would be one of my considerations for studying abroad.”



James NG, a sports therapist student from HK currently based in at the University of Central Lancashire in UK argues that: “state censorship can have an effect more on an institutional level rather than on a personal level. Hong Kong is all about having the freedom to express yourself. Nobody would ever tell you not to publish your research. Studying in the UK is not that different from Hong Kong”.

A student from Hong Kong, Sam Hau, is currently studying in England for his B.A in International Business at the University of Central Lancashire. He is mostly informed through the web about the story. He’s not “concerned about freedom issues in Hong Kong. I would still choose to study in HK over UK any day”.

Mr. Mo, a Hong Kong native, argues he wishes he could stay in Hong Kong, but the UK seems to have more economic opportunity and democratic institutions, which he prefers. He believes, “HKU is still a good place for both the local and international students to do their research and I see no [political] obstacles for them to do their research. The major problem of HKU is the people who are being appointed and affect matters of HKU are not picked by the majority of the HKU. It is clear that everything is related to politics because Mr. Chan was a constitutional and human rights lawyer.”

He concludes, “despite [the fact that] UK and other EU universities are more democratic than HK, the political situation in every country is different. But it is quite a shame that one of the best universities in HK was affected by politicians. For HKU, Mr. Chan was a suitable person for covering the position. But I think the suppression was not from the central government. I believe that there are some people in the middle making things up like CY Leung, the Chief Executive of HKU.”

State censorship cannot only affect an institution but a researcher and his research itself on many levels. Dr. Ogola concluded, “It no doubt does. However, we must always find a way of subverting repression. Some of the most influential scholarly works today have been produced under terrible [regimes while fighting for] academic freedom.”

Louis Tang Kai Tsung believes, “due to the political issues, a lot of students in Hong Kong participated in different parades. And this will definitely affect students’ study. And this is also a part of reasons why I chose to study abroad in order to focus on my study. For example, during the action of Occupy Central and yellow ribbon[movement’s], Hong Kong students spent days and nights on street to protest. They didn’t even attend to school and that led to some universities planning to stop classes. Those who want to focus on study were affected.”

The UK’s academic communities, domestic and international, have some awareness of the conflict in Hong Kong –sometimes in depth and sometimes superficial. For some, freedom matters in the abstract, but very few consider it a problem should they consider coming to Hong Kong.

While students and professors claim that academic freedom is important, very few have got the message that there is a problem in Hong Kong and continue to consider it a viable option for study, research and teaching. As long as the local, internecine battles didn’t affect them, they aren’t too worried. From far away, the problems seem abstract and theoretical. Hong Kong University’s reputation stands, protected by distance.


Find our story on how the controversies are impacting on rankings and students’ understanding of rankings here.