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11 March 2011

Going Global 2011
President's Speech

Dear delegates,

Welcome to the biggest international gathering of education ministers, heads of universities and senior educational officials in Hong Kong's history. I understand that there are over 1000 of us here today - some fly in on private jets, others take the subway trains, and still others just cross the Shenzhen River. But we are all here for one thing: to meet the educational challenges of the global economy.

We come together at a very interesting time. You may be interested to know that the Chinese have a favorite curse for their favorite enemy: "May you live in interesting times!"

But for us in education, it is our job to live with interesting times, because the primary purpose of education is to prepare for change.

Change comes to Hong Kong in big waves. For one thing, our elite education has given way to mass education.

The number of government-funded universities in Hong Kong has grown from 1 to 8 in the last 50 years, and the number of students studying in local universities from 1% to 20% of the high school population

But the change is not just a change in numbers. There is now a fundamental change in philosophy, made necessary by changes in the wider world.

First, there is the free flow of talents and services across borders in the new global economy. This means many old traditional jobs can now be cheaply outsourced to developing markets. I understand that even the paperwork for divorce can now be outsourced to India for one tenth of its cost in the US. The only jobs that are offshore-proof are jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving. What is more, innovations in science, technology and management themselves often give birth to new economic opportunities. Hence the urgency of providing an education that promotes creativity, not traditional job-readiness.

Another change is the shift in the global economic balance. The rise of the Asian economy is affecting the direction of the international student flow. Historically, this flow is almost exclusively East to West, although the composition is no longer dominated by students from Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. 30 years ago, there were no students from Mainland China studying in the US. Today, the number of Mainland Chinese students studying in the US has just surpassed that of India's to become the largest from anywhere in the world. At the same time, the rise of Asian universities attracts students from the West keen to go where jobs are plentiful. Asian students, too, see good reasons for staying in their region which gives them the cultural advantages and occupational rewards in terms of internships and subsequent job opportunities.

Another change is the availability of the educational dollar. Asian governments are actually pumping more money into education. This is true in Singapore, Korea, Mainland China and of course, Hong Kong, where our higher education is out looking for at least an extra 1,000 professors within the next year to meet our growth needs. The reverse flow of talents is not limited to only students.

To prepare for this era of change, Hong Kong is positioning itself as an education hub that takes in the rich Pearl River Delta. A big part of being a hub is that our higher education must be international in character and quality, turning out students to be effective players in the global economy. Universities in Hong Kong are offering our students an education with international exposure and culture, big on innovation and creativity, and heavy on promoting learning by doing. This is in sharp contrast to the traditional view of Asian education that has commonly been criticized as long on respect and memorization and short on critical and creative thinking.

The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell used to say that "Change is scientific" whereas "Progress is ethical." In education, our challenge is to make sure that "change is progress" and not just change for the sake of changing. One change that qualifies as progress is becoming more international. HKUST for example has quickened its pace in its internationalization drive. 16% of our student intake this year is now non-local, divided almost evenly between Mainland and overseas students from many parts of the world. We intend to go up to 20%, the ceiling set by our government for non-local student intake. At HKUST, we also offer roughly a third of our undergrads the chance of going overseas on exchange programs. Our next target is 50%. Believe it or not, employers now prefer to hire graduates with international experience to those with good academic grades. An international exchange promotes a global perspective and adaptability.

As for our relationship with the Mainland, it is both an opportunity and a challenge. In education, Hong Kong can look to the Mainland for talents. The number of Mainland top students who can afford a Hong Kong university education has skyrocketed in the past decade. By helping to train the next generation of Chinese leaders, Hong Kong is exerting and extending its influence on the Mainland. In research, the Mainland provides resources, scale and its own expertise. But challenges arise from two very different systems. To name a few, Hong Kong institutions are not allowed to offer independent degree programs on the Mainland. We also need a mechanism to facilitate the crossing of research funding, and to resolve issues caused by different tradition and management styles.

But overall, the big trend is that many Hong Kong universities have growing ties with their mainland counterparts, in joint partnerships, as well as collaborations with Mainland corporations. For the first time, Hong Kong is included in China's latest Five-Year Plan, giving us a strategic role in the development of the Pearl River Delta. This means more opportunities for our staff and students, internships and a sharing of labs and resources, maybe even access to mainland state funding. HKUST, though only 20 years old, is already looked up to as a template for the newly established South University of Science and Technology of China.

The current major education reform in Hong Kong, better known here as the 334 reform - that is 3 years of junior secondary, 3 years of senior secondary and 4 years of tertiary education - also gives us a ready platform to respond to the above challenges giving our universities a chance to offer quality education at scale.

At HKUST, as in other sister institutions, we are preparing non-stop to take in an extra one-third of undergraduate students, and provide the hardware and software for an expanded student body and design a new curriculum backed by pedagogical innovations. This include an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program for students to participate in the process of generating knowledge through discovery learning; a school-based admission system allowing students to choose the best program that suits their interests after a year or two in the university; a core curriculum which provides broader general education, and more minor and dual degrees for interdisciplinary training.

All in all, this is a very good time for overseas students and faculty to come to Hong Kong. We are in an aggressive recruitment mode for both. Hong Kong is at the heart of this new Asian prosperity zone, with its strong orientation towards the West and deeps roots in China. Our higher education is going international, and doing it in ways that take in the best of both worlds, in quantity and quality, with a widening regional network. Come cross the Hong Kong bridge to a partnership in progress.

Now, as head of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and current Convener of the Heads of Universities Committee, it is my duty of delight to welcome you all to our city, a city where you can talk shop and shop till you drop, all in a typical Hong Kong day.

Thank you.


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