Higher education: agent of change for a better world

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By Prof Roland T Chin
President
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

A university is a product of its time, and as times change, so too does it need to adapt to meet new demands of society.  The ingrained pursuit of academic and research excellence naturally drives the sector to step up to the responsibility of meeting requirements presented by new developments, preparing students   for   life and matching their knowledge and skill sets with those sought by industry, generating and exchanging knowledge with the community to address its needs, among other aims. However, it does not suffice to simply adapt; an institution should proactively innovate, have the foresight to anticipate community needs and set agendas in order to bring about positive impact to its students, the society in which it operates and the world at large.

This profound ability is perhaps best summarised by a quote by Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I would like to add my own take on this – the world is also a powerful force changing the face of education. It is undeniable that higher education worldwide has been experiencing big changes in recent decades and I have a few observations on the resulting state of affairs.

Changes in higher education worldwide

First, the world has been experiencing the massification of higher education since the turn of the century. The whole world is going to university – currently there are about 250 million college students and this number is growing rapidly.

This leads to my second observation: the world of higher education is flat. As the world becomes more and more globalised, student mobility is set to increase more rapidly. In part, deeper collaborations between universities and an appreciation of the immense benefits that can be derived from exchange have spurred a greater number of students to undertake opportunities outside of home with the aim of gaining global learning experience.

My third observation is that Asia is an emerging hub of education excellence. While the number of mobile students is growing, their movement is no longer unidirectional – from Asia to North America and Europe. Today, the list of education destinations has expanded, no longer confined to the traditional destination countries. Moreover, students from North America and Europe are seeking learning opportunities in Asia. Asian countries including Mainland China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and those in the Middle East are investing heavily in their higher education sector. These countries are also attracting investment from prestigious universities to set up satellite campuses. I believe Asia is emerging as another global hub of higher education excellence and Hong Kong plays a major role in it.

Students: global citizens of the future

The massification of higher education locally as well as worldwide also means graduates will face intensified competition in the workplace. In response, it is important for universities to nurture students to be well- rounded global citizens who can serve their local communities and the world well.

In this regard, students must go beyond information that is Googleable, in other words, fixed and factual. Knowledge, as opposed to Googleable information, requires a higher order of thinking such as decision-making, morality, and creativity. Fixed learning and fixed teaching could limit one’s imagination and aspiration, and since solutions to real-world issues increasingly need to be innovative and require collaborative efforts, it is imperative that we as educators go beyond this and nurture creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit within students so that they will go on to become a new generation of thinkers, innovators and world changers.

Besides, students should prepare themselves to be employable for a career which may not be known until a decade from now. Living in a digital age, graduates need to be prepared for life-long learning and their third or fourth career in their life. Cast your mind back and you would realise there are a number of jobs today that didn’t exist 25 years ago, such as social media manager and market research data miner, while some iconic brands no longer exist, such as Borders and Blockbuster Videos.

Educators in the higher education sector should also emphasise to students the importance of being globally able. Job mobility is a reality, and students must be globally competent. Globalisation and technological advancements have very much changed the higher education scene. Students should not limit their career path to their home countries. In the 20 years after their graduation, they would probably have worked in five or six jobs in three or four different countries. Moreover, the proliferation of mobile technology has opened doors to endless possibilities. For example, developments in information technology have made it possible for people from different parts of the world to stay connected and work together in an interactive way to solve big problems common to countries around the world, such as global warming, infectious diseases, water shortage and wealth disparity.

Student exchange

Challenges in Hong Kong

Given the changes in the higher education scene worldwide and the need for our students to respond and acquire the abilities required to thrive in the fast-changing, globalised world, what are the challenges facing higher education in Hong Kong?

A major reform in higher education in Hong Kong was seen in 2009 with the introduction of the New Academic Structure for Senior Secondary School and Higher Education. Under the new structure, university education was changed from three years to four years, with the first cohort of undergraduate students admitted in 2012.  The extended duration of undergraduate programmes was meant to make room for quality university education and all-round development.

As with any structural change, this reform posed a huge challenge to universities to develop the new four-year system. Such change offered Hong Kong universities opportunities to amend course programmes to enhance teaching and learning through the provision of richer and more diverse learning experiences to students afforded by the additional year in university.

I take the view that higher education institutions can adopt dual approaches towards changes, both passive and active. While they evolve to respond to external factors, they are also in a position to effect change.

Effecting change

Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) is an illustrative case of how changes in the town-gown relationship, global trends in higher education and new expectations for graduates have shaped the development of higher education in Hong Kong. HKBU started as a private institution. In 1956, the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong founded Hong Kong Baptist College as a small private post-secondary college, heeding the call for improved educational opportunities for youths from middle-lower income families. Since then, the institution has firmly established its presence in Hong Kong and in the international arena. There are several examples of HKBU, despite its relatively short history and starting off as a small private institution, that highlight how innovations can lead to progress across the spectrum.

Over the years, HKBU has introduced many new programmes in Hong Kong. Established in 1968 in a bold yet carefully orchestrated move, the Department of Communication has earned a reputation for cultivating talents in journalism, radio and television, broadcasting and public relations. These talents have helped create a critical mass in these respective industries, and through channelling what they had learnt on campus into their careers, they have shaped the profession. Notable examples include Mr Cheng Kok-kong, a renowned lyricist who played a most significant part in fostering the golden age of Canto-pop in the 1970s and 1980s; and Director of Broadcasting of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Mr Leung Ka-wing, a veteran journalist who had contributed to the development of the broadcasting industry.

In addition, the flourishing entertainment industry, covering film and music, during Hong Kong’s rapid economic transformation in the 1980s, quickly gained a foothold in Asia and held sway over the region. When plans were laid to establish the Department of Communication, no one could have foreseen this outcome, certainly not its reach and speed of development. Yet, the formidable expansion in the industry has indirectly paved the way for the establishment of the Academy of Film, solidifying HKBU’s reputation as the cradle of the city’s creative elite.

HKBU was also the first institution in Hong Kong to introduce degree programmes in Chinese medicine. Remarkably, despite the Chinese cultural heritage in Hong Kong and the territory’s well-developed healthcare system, there were no degree programmes in place to train Chinese medicine doctors. In 1999, the School of Chinese Medicine was established and HKBU was the first in the city to offer Bachelor of Chinese Medicine and Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science programme, and Bachelor of Pharmacy in Chinese Medicine programme. Academic studies coupled with outreach, internship and the provision of outpatient services through its 15 Chinese medicine clinics over the territory raised the standing, acceptance and credibility of Chinese Medicine. Moreover, through rigorous multidisciplinary research, new drug discoveries have been made and promising treatments found.

Exciting time for higher education

Facing unprecedented changes, universities need to change, and this is no different for institutions in Hong Kong which aim to secure a place in Asia’s emerging hub of higher education excellence. For HKBU, our aspiration is to be a leading research-led liberal arts university. This means initiating change while maintaining a holistic approach to higher education and emphasising a broad-based creativity-inspiring undergraduate education, which inculcates in our students a sense of human values. This ethos of whole person education initiated by our founding fathers 60 years ago has served HKBU well, with it becoming a trait of the university widely recognised by accrediting bodies, government agencies, students and the public. Staying true to its roots, HKBU aims to focus on its core competencies and strengthen its niche areas in order to lead changes not only in Hong Kong but also in other parts of the world.

This is an exciting time for the higher education sector. Long regarded as Asia’s world city, Hong Kong continues to present myriad opportunities against the backdrop of a rising education hub in Asia. The city known for its energy, resilience and flexibility is full of promise, and educators taking the important role of nurturing globally able students should stand ready to drive progress in higher education and contribute to making our world a better place.

HKBU

Professor Roland T Chin is the fifth president of Hong Kong Baptist University. Professor Chin obtained his bachelor’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 1975 and 1979, respectively. He started his academic career at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, from 1981 to 1995. His research is in the areas of computer vision, image processing, and pattern recognition. He was vice president for research and development, and later provost at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology from 2003–2010. Prior to joining HKBU, he was provost and deputy vice chancellor and chair professor of computer science at The University of Hong Kong from 2010 to 2015.