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15 September 2011

BOAO Youth Forum for Hong Kong
President's Speech

Prof Hu, distinguished speakers, students, ladies and gentlemen:

Today's topic, "Education in transition", is central to the mission of Asian universities, indeed all universities.

Our world is in transition. You might say that it is in a state of rapid change, or you would say that it is in turmoil. Either way, big change is the order of the day: changes in the economic system and changes in demand for new skills.

Parents and students may expect that a university education will prepare students for a cushy job. But I am sorry to say that this is a misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education, especially in a world that is changing before our very eyes.

I would say that education in general, and university education in particular, is "preparation for change" because we cannot have a static education for a fast-changing world. The job market is a very different today, compared to your parents' days. Few jobs now last a lifetime. Instead, people change jobs, employers or even occupations almost as often as they change their fashion. Old jobs are lost to the market and new jobs are being created every day. Some jobs go overseas. Others simply disappear.

So, how do we prepare for change in Hong Kong through our education system? This is where the 334 reform comes in. For the non-HK people in the audience, 334 means that HK will go from a three year university system, to a four year university program with high school education being shortened from 7 to 6 years. 334 is not just about changing the number of years at each level. It is an opportunity to rethink our approach to education, to break free from our obsession with static examination learning and passive memory learning. Instead, students are asked to learn how to learn, to learn analytically and creatively. For centuries, students in Asia were taught to memorize and regurgitate, to respect scholarship and accept the authority of famous people. People in the West often compare us unfavorably with Western education which puts a premium on inquiry learning and creativity.

Don't get me wrong. There are some things that Asian people do right. We Asians value education greatly. We believe that education will better our lives and our society. Asian students are also known for their discipline and drive. By now, you have all heard about our "Tiger Moms". But discipline and a belief in education alone will not bring out the best in each individual.

At HKUST, we ask ourselves, "What kind of graduates do we want to produce? "Well, the ideal graduate is someone who asks a lot of questions, who is curious about things, who never takes anything for granted and who is prepared and has the experience and confidence to learn anything new. Someone who is not curious will not discover new things. Einstein famously said: "I have no special talents. I am only very curious." Well, I think he was a bit too modest but talent without curiosity and drive will not go far.

But curiosity alone is not enough. We must learn by doing, often through trial and error. Some wise educator once said: "We remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we see, and 80% of what we do." This is why in designing our new undergraduate curriculum, we make an effort to offer opportunities for doing research at the undergraduate level under the guidance and mentorship of some our leading researchers. Our famous Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program is responsible for sending 50 of our graduates every year into Ph.D. programs in world-leading universities, many with full scholarships.

There is another change: to move away from early specialization. Previously, our admission is discipline-based. Now it is school-based. Applicants can wait till their second year before deciding on their majors and all students share a common core program which is broad-based. Students can explore "Signature Courses" from other Schools. Your minor may turn out to spark your life-long interest or become your career. Two of the Nobel Laureates who came to lecture at our university this year became world-famous experts in a subject they took only as a minor in university. We offer multidisciplinary programs such as environmental studies, and biomedical engineering. Our business majors can learn some S&T and our S&T students can pick up some business and management skills.

You have no doubt heard of the complaint that students are often unable to find work in the discipline in which they are trained. We have two responses to that. First, remember I already said that the purpose of university education is not just vocational training and many successful people built their careers in fields other than their university majors. Their successes are often helped by the general skills, logical thinking, the experience and confidence in having learned a subject in depth, and broad and global perspectives. Our second response is to train our students to create their own jobs and jobs for others, to pursue their passion as entrepreneurs. Over the years, our Entrepreneurship Center has helped 46 start-ups, giving them market advice and connections, and even steering them to angel investors. Our first PhD is now the founder and chairman of a tech company that is listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Just last week, he had a one-on-one with the legendary former GE CEO Jack Welch in a forum held at this very Convention Center.

Finally, education is not just about yourself. The duty of the educated is to serve the society that gives you that privilege. That is why community service and engagement is part of our ideal student profile. We have two service learning programs: CONNECT and REDBIRD. To date, over 3,000 students have taken part in one or the other. So you can see that they are not just token projects.

Ladies and gentlemen, no jobs are safe and permanent in this new global order. The wise graduate is one who sees opportunities in difficulties and future trends. That is the new leader for tomorrow. I hope those are graduates that HKUST will produce. Thank you.


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