South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Albert Cheng says Mathieson has a tough task ahead to follow Tsui’s outstanding record, especially given the difficulties of attracting donors
Out with the old and in with the new. The University of Hong Kong has bade farewell to vice chancellor Tsui Lap-chee after 12 years and welcomed his successor, Peter Mathieson. Tsui’s departure and the arrival of his replacement have both stirred a fair amount of controversy.
During his tenure, Tsui was embroiled in the so-called HKU 818 incident, which eventually led to him not seeking reappointment. The incident involved alleged civil rights violations during a visit by then vice-premier Li Keqiang in August 2011. Li’s arrival at the university led to a lockdown by police to prevent anyone from approaching him. There was further controversy after a protocol blunder saw Li seated in the chancellor’s chair, a symbol of the highest authority in the university.
Mathieson’s problem stems from the fact that he is an expatriate and hence has been accused of not understanding China and local affairs.
However, Tsui and Mathieson share a common quality – the ability to raise funds for a university. Mathieson has raised over £6 million (HK$77 million) for research from reputable sources but time will tell whether he can continue the good work here. Tsui has an impressive track record, having raised billions of dollars for HKU in his 12 years: around 50,000 donors contributed to thousands of university projects.
Tsui may not be the best speech-maker or good at blowing his own, or another’s, trumpet. His impressive fundraising record was down to his determination, perseverance and sincerity. That is what moved people to donate.
Unfortunately, his success has also been his curse. The university’s faculty of medicine was named after tycoon Li Ka-shing, who donated HK$1 billion in 2005, and the move prompted criticism from alumni, who accused Tsui of selling out HKU by kowtowing to rich and powerful property developers. Over the years, many HKU-trained doctors have come to dominate top positions in various sectors and benefited within the government system. The medical sector maintains a close circle to protect vested interests. One example is the resistance to a Medical Council proposal to make doctors undergo compulsory education and training periodically to upgrade their skills.
Another is resistance to allowing qualified overseas doctors to practise in public hospitals to help alleviate the current manpower shortages. The medical sector has an ulterior motive: to avoid outside competition at all costs and guarantee its long-term benefits.
That’s why I believe the controversy over the naming of the medical faculty was simply manipulation of public sentiment against the rich at a time when social conflicts were at their worst. The instigators’ action showed a disregard of the urgent need for medical research funding that brings benefits to the community at large.
There is a serious shortfall in government funding for scientific research in local universities, which is disproportionate to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre. It is shameful, but it explains why we are in our current position years after declaring we need to change our economic model. We remain heavily reliant on our financial status and the property sector, and have become prisoners to them.
Our situation was summed up well by Tsui, who said Hong Kong doesn’t lack talent – especially HKU, which is a melting pot for talented individuals from all over the world. A total of 120 teaching staff from the university have been rated by the Institute of Scientific Information as in the top 1 per cent of scientists in the world. This is certainly a reason for pride for the whole of Hong Kong.
But, sadly, our scientific research funding, amounting to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, lags far behind international standards and will remain so if the government doesn’t change its mindset and force universities to become self-sufficient.
If we look at overseas educational institutions, it’s common practice for them to be named after donors. For example, King’s College London renamed its undergraduate law school The Dickson Poon School of Law after the businessman donated £20 million. It’s even more common in the United States.
In Hong Kong, it’s not an easy task to raise funds for universities. Tsui stepped down with a glorious track record. The new vice chancellor has a difficult job to prove himself and overcome the many obstacles put in his way by the many hypocrites out there. The petty-minded nature of some and the negativity surrounding the naming of the HKU medical faculty will do nothing to encourage potential donors to step forward. That can only make it harder for local universities to raise funds. That’s a burden we must all share.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.