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LCQ6: Concern about interference with autonomy of tertiary institutions

     Following is a question by the Hon Ip Kin-yuen and a written reply by the Secretary for Education, Mr Eddie Ng Hak-kim, in the Legislative Council today (February 25):


     The University Grants Committee (UGC) announced the results of the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 (the RAE results) on January 27 this year. However, one day before the announcement, a newspaper reported part of the RAE results (including concrete figures), which were then confidential information. Following that, reports and articles were published in that newspaper consecutively for several days, alleging that the academic research results of the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) were inferior to those of the law faculties of other local universities and other faculties of HKU, for which the former Dean of the Faculty of Law of HKU (the former Dean) should be the one to blame, and considering that the former Dean, who had been unanimously recommended by the members of the search committee for the appointment of the post of Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of HKU, was unsuitable for the appointment. Some teaching staff members of tertiary institutions have expressed concerns that the aforesaid practice of the newspaper has seriously interfered with institutional autonomy. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether it knows if UGC will investigate why the newspaper was able to obtain the information on the RAE results which was then confidential and whether the requirements under the Official Secrets Ordinance (Cap. 521) or other confidentiality rules have been contravened, and publish the investigation results; if UGC will not conduct such an investigation, the reasons for that;

(2) whether it knows the workflow for compiling the RAE results; the names and post titles of those persons who had access to the initial drafts or the final version of the RAE results prior to the announcement of such results;

(3) whether it knows if UGC had submitted the RAE results to the Chief Executive's Office, the Executive Council, the Education Bureau, the Central Policy Unit or other organisations prior to the announcement of such results; if UGC had, the reasons for that;

(4) as it has been reported that some government officials or some persons entrusted by such officials tendered views on the selection of the Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of HKU to members of the Council of HKU, or even attempted to influence their voting preference, whether the authorities know the details of the communications between such persons and members of the Council of HKU; if they know, of the details; if not, the reasons for that and whether they will investigate whether such communications constituted interference with academic freedom and institutional autonomy; and

(5) of the specific measures in place to ensure that the process for selecting senior management staff of tertiary institutions is free from the influence of external pressure, so as to safeguard the autonomy of tertiary institutions?



     Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are core values treasured by Hong Kong and are cornerstones of our higher education sector, as enshrined in the Basic Law. The eight higher education institutions funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC) are autonomous bodies established pursuant to their respective ordinances and each has established a Council to serve as the governing body. The UGC Notes on Procedures (NoP) also clearly state that institutions enjoy autonomy in the development of curricula and academic standards, selection of staff and students, initiation and conduct of research, internal allocation of resources, etc. As indicated in the NoP, the institutions need to have freedom of choice and of action to properly undertake the work expected of them by the community in order to gain public support. However, this does not mean that they could ignore public interest or are exempted from public scrutiny. In fact, in view of the significant funding these institutions receive in the form of Government subvention and private contributions, as well as the importance of higher education to the overall development of society, it is incumbent upon the Government and the community at large to have a legitimate interest in the operation of the institutions. Therefore, while the Government and the UGC attach great importance to safeguarding institutional autonomy, institutions are also expected to remain committed to transparency and accountability in their operation, to ensure that funding is put to appropriate uses that serve the best interests of the community and students.

     In line with the principle of accountability, the UGC conducted the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 (RAE 2014) as part of its commitment to assessing the performance of the UGC-funded institutions. Using international benchmarks and more precise measures, the RAE examines the research quality and areas of relative strengths of the institutions and makes recommendations for institutions to seek further improvements. The objective is to encourage world-class research and promote the pursuit of excellence among the institutions. The UGC stresses that the RAE 2014 is not a ranking exercise and the assessment is not targeting at individual academic staff. It is not appropriate to simply use the RAE 2014 results to make direct comparison of the research performances across institutions or put them in ranking order, amidst differences in their roles, missions, discipline focus and background.

     Regarding the questions put forward by the Hon Ip, our reply is as follows:

(1) to (3) As stated in the press release (at Annex) issued by the UGC on February 5, 2015, regarding the result announcement of the RAE 2014, the results of the exercise were kept strictly confidential until the public announcement on January 27, 2015. All relevant confidential papers for discussion at the UGC meeting were returned to the UGC Secretariat immediately after the meeting. Moreover, the Education Bureau has all along been working in partnership and maintaining good communication with the UGC, and strict confidentiality has been observed throughout the process.

     Besides, it is noteworthy that the community is not only concerned that part of the RAE results were reported in advance; in fact, the community is even more concerned about the actual research performance of the relevant institutions as demonstrated in this exercise, and the analysis of the relevant assessment results.

(4) and (5) As mentioned above, the NoP state that institutions enjoy autonomy in selection of staff, among others. All UGC-funded institutions, including the University of Hong Kong (HKU), are autonomous statutory bodies which select and appoint academic staff in accordance with relevant requirements in respective ordinances and their internal procedures. The Government is not involved in the process. Taking the positions of Pro-Vice-Chancellors as an example, section 12(6) and statute VII of the University of Hong Kong Ordinance (Cap. 1053) provide that the Pro-Vice-Chancellors shall be appointed by the Council on such terms and conditions as the Council shall prescribe, and that a Pro-Vice-Chancellor shall hold office for such period as the Council shall determine.

     Regarding recent media reports in relation to the selection of one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors of HKU, we reiterate that the Chief Executive and the Government have not intervened in the selection process. We note that the Chairman of HKU Council has openly stated that the Council has all along been adhering to the established procedures with regard to the selection of the Pro-Vice-Chancellor concerned. The selection process is still ongoing and there has not been any impropriety. We appeal to all sectors of the community not to attempt to influence the selection process through media pressure.

Ends/Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Issued at HKT 13:14


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