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8 September 2010

UGC Teaching Excellence Dinner
President's Speech
  • Mrs Laura Cha, members of UGC, outstanding teachers, distinguished guests and colleagues,
  • Thank you, Laura, for the honor of speaking on this important subject before this important gathering of educators.
  • Thank you, Laura, also for shining UGC's spotlight on teaching, the one thing that will define the success of the 334 reform.
  • I know my main role tonight is to represent HUCOM but I do want to add my own voice to turn up the message that good teaching is crucial to higher education, crucial to the quality of our people, and therefore crucial to the future of Hong Kong.
  • But, I am not here to preach. I am here to provoke discussions on this crucial common challenge.
  • All of us here had been students, and most of us had been teachers. Today, I speak to you partly as a former student, partly as a former teacher, and partly as a current administrator.
  • In front of so many proven experts in teaching, I feel a bit presumptuous speaking on the subject. But a president of a university in HK doesn't turn down an invitation from Laura Cha. It's like a cardinal turning down an audience with the Pope.
  • First and foremost, we are here to honor the outstanding teachers who have been nominated by their universities. Tonight, you are the lead cast, the rest of us are your cheerleaders. Teachers are at the core of education. Good and caring teachers are the glue that binds students to the institution of higher learning.
  • You are in the front line, carrying our heaviest burdens, day in and day out meeting the challenge of engaging and sharpening young minds. In this age of instant digital stimulations, you have the difficult task of convincing students that lessons are worth getting up early and staying awake for. Some of you surely are mentors to your students, in academics as well as in life. I salute you for choosing a career that hinges on changing young lives.
  • We are all knee-deep in the hardware of 334, and neck-high in its software. New buildings are lovely. Research rankings are nice. Being able to attract high-caliber students is well and good. But if we fail to turn middling students into good students and good students into great students on exit, then we are not much of an education institution. If we don't get the teaching and learning right, the rest is just fluff.
  • How our students learn and what they learn are equally important in this global age. Our model teachers here will tell us that, at its very best, learning is interactive, and discovery-driven.
  • Asian schools have been criticized by scholars in the West, such as Yale president Rick Levin, as being lost in the uncritical learning of facts and too exam-driven.
  • Whether we agree or not, I do believe we need to produce students who are capable of innovative and critical thinking. The 334 reform won't succeed until we can successfully cultivate this mindset.
  • Because otherwise we'll soon find that jobs that can be done mechanically will be outsourced to lower cost places. Even divorces in the US can now be processed in India at 1/10 the cost. Only original, creative work is safe from offshore competition. Creativity is about personal development and social prosperity.
  • In tertiary education, the word "teaching" doesn't quite cut it, as it implies a one-way transmission of knowledge*. Teachers should be facilitators and designers of learning experiences, whose role is to inspire, motivate and manage the learning process rather than just to transmit knowledge.
  • Good teachers encourage alternative thinking, and are happy if their students challenge them.
  • Now you may rightfully ask: you lead a university that is known to the outside world as a research university. Isn't it a bit rich that I should be up here speaking about teaching excellence?
  • The truth is that I see a close relationship between research and good teaching. To be sure, professors, including the ones we honor today, have to strike a balance between time for teaching and time for research.
  • In the pursuit of academic rankings, the current faculty promotion and reward system in HK universities has probably been tilting more towards research over teaching. Each institution should find the proper balance for its role and mission.
  • I believe that research and the spirit of discovery goes to the heart of good teaching. I believe that teaching and research are not a zero-sum game. Let's not forget that the idea of a modern "research university" is that research and teaching feed on each other.
  • In some of the world's best universities, many of the best teachers are also outstanding researchers, and vice versa.
  • Without self-renewal through research, a teacher will be essentially recycling old knowledge, misleading students into believing that knowledge is static.
  • Instead, we should invite the students to participate in the knowledge creation process.
  • At HKUST, for example, we initiated our Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program a few years ago for undergraduates to do hands-on research normally available only to postgraduates. The experience should bode well for their careers, whether in academia or business.
  • The results are indeed astounding. This year many of our graduates who participated in this program have been directly admitted into Ph.D. programs at places such as Yale and Harvard, most on full scholarships.
  • I'm sure many of our sister institutions have similar successful programs.
  • I want to conclude by first applauding UGC's initiative in setting up the Pan-UGC Teaching Award, which was just announced by Laura. And, on behalf of HUCOM, I want to salute our award-winning teachers with a slight variation on an old joke which goes like "A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep." Well, you have put that joke to sleep! Instead, you speak to your students' dreams, and there is no telling how far these dreams will take them.
  • Thank you.


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