The Soul of University Education

Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.
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Dr. Winnie Tang, Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, University of Hong Kong

Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.
Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.

Universities in Hong Kong and abroad are hard-pressed to prove their worth to students – through dramatically improved job prospects – and to society, through ‘quality of life’ improving policy and scientific breakthroughs. While those goals are eminently worthy and necessary, they must be achieved while also delivering the deeper mission of promoting our core values as a society and elevating mankind. Fortunately, we can do it all – if we avoid narrow thinking and keep the big picture in mind.

Delivering the goods

No one, student or taxpayer, wants to pay for expensive education leading to minimum wage jobs. Fortunately, it isn’t the norm. Success in employment and education have been closely related for a long time. In the United States, while the average unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in 2017, the unemployment rate of those having secondary education was 7.7 percent; even for the employed, the median weekly income was only US$520. For university degree holders the unemployment rate was 2.5 percent with a median weekly income of US$1,173, which is twice of those with secondary education.

Hong Kong is similar in this aspect. According to the Census and Statistics Department, for men, the median monthly salary of those who are less educated vs. those with a university degree were HK$12,000 and HK$33,000 respectively in 2017, a difference of more than 2.5 times. As for the professionals, namely doctors, lawyers and accountants, they have been well-known for earning even higher incomes over the past decades.

Wait – computer engineering undergrads make HOW much?

The gender salary gap still exists today, but the top paid profession has changed. Last year, an American software engineer revealed the salary of herself and her peers to promote pay equality between men and women. However, the gender gap point may have been lost people were drawn to the article’s description of annual incomes for newly graduated software engineers in San Francisco Bay Area hitting well over six figures (over HK$1 million per annum).

No wonder the demand for computer science training has been increasing sharply in recent years. The New York Times quoted the Computing Research Association’s survey of 200 universities in the U.S., the number of students majoring in computer science doubled to over 100,000 from 2013 to 2017. For example, 3,300 students applied for famous University of Texas computer science programme at Austin last year. Due to fierce competition, some universities even resorted to selecting equally qualified students for computing classes by lucky draw.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong…

Hong Kong is no exception. The Government estimates that the demand for information technology talents will increase by 50,000 jobs in the near future. Therefore, in recent years, universities have allocated more resources for new programmes, ranging from artificial intelligence (AI), financial technology, biomedical engineering, energy and environmental engineering, to data science.

However, siloed study resulting in narrow thinking maybe be limiting what we are achieving.

Boris Katz, a principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who pioneered virtual assistant technology 40 years ago and made key contributions to the linguistic abilities of machines, criticized today’s chatbots such as Apple’s Siri not being intelligent at all because it could only answer pre-set questions. It lacked the intelligence to truly interact with human beings. He suggests that to go beyond these types of limited accomplishments, the scientific and technological community must communicate with different sectors for inspiring new thinking and achieving breakthroughs.

Cross-pollinating our thinking

That’s why I am glad to see local universities offering interdisciplinary programs, such as those offered by the University of Hong Kong, combining the application of AI, design, global health and development and other sectors. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have also launched interdisciplinary programs to train young people to meet future challenges.

Programs co-organised by cross-border universities not only broadens the horizons of students but also helps them build network. Recently, the CUHK announced the launch a dual bachelor degree programs co-organised with five internationally renowned institutions, namely Peking University, Tsinghua University, Waseda University in Japan, IE Business School in Spain, and Cass Business School of the University of London, that will provide students a gateway to the international community.

A higher purpose to higher education

Having said that, we shall not forget the ultimate goal of university education. In his book The Principal’s Graduation, Professor Joseph Sung, former Vice-Chancellor and President of the CUHK talked about his philosophy of university education with which I deeply agreed. He said that while universities are training professionals, it should not forget to “preserve and promote its culture and core values.”

Therefore, while we pursue market value and personal return, we must bear in mind that the ultimate goal of all technologies and university education is to improve the quality of life for all mankind.

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