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22 November 2011

Speech at HKIHRM Annual Conference 2011
President's Speech

Mr Chairman, delegates, ladies and gentlemen:

Generally, we academics come to you HR professionals for help in recruiting the talents we need. So, for me to stand before you and speak on a subject of which you are the acknowledged experts, is like bringing coal to Newcastle, or tea to China. And yet, I secretly feel that I am really one of you.

If you go back further in the supply chain of talents, there is a symbiotic relationship between us-between the university and the recruiting agency. First of all, both of us are engaged in people business. We invest in people for the sustainable development of a company, an organization, a society and the humanity as a whole. There is a value chain between universities and businesses. We graduate students to businesses, and businesses in turn build on and grow the human capital for its sustainable development. It's true that you recruit people for us, but don't forget we train them for you to begin with. The pool you source from has been created by us for you. For who can deny that ultimately, the quality of the people on the market depends on the quality of the education they have received. You might say that we are your clients, but we are also your trainers of last resort.

So, today, I want to say something about how we educators see our role and design our people-training programs.

You may not like what I am about to say, but I will say it anyway: at the university, we do not see our role narrowly as training specific talents for specific jobs. Don't get me wrong. We do turn out talents by the thousands for what the market needs. But with the world changing at a head-spinning pace, intellectually speaking, we would not be doing our job if we merely train students for jobs that may no longer exist in five or ten years. We see our challenge as preparing students for change, for the unpredictable future. To be sure, students will learn the fundamentals of a profession, if they choose to become professionals. But in a world where knowledge becomes obsolete in the blink of an eye, we feel that we are duty-bound to go long-term, go generic, without discarding the short-term and the specific. Let me explain.

How often have you heard the complaint that students who graduate from an exam-driven system are poor problem-solvers and unable to connect the dots? Employers will tell you what a delight it is to have employees who anticipate problems and solve them without being asked. We at the university intend to produce this kind of inner-directed graduates who see what is ahead and what needs to be done.

What kind of education system will produce this kind of loveable employees? The kind that makes learning challenging, worth exploring, and empowering. In concrete terms, we want to provide an environment where students remain hungry and curious, who see self-growth as a necessary condition for happiness. In other words we see education as an instrument for personal growth, as reaching out, as digging deep. That is why we promote internationalization. We don't promote it because it sounds nice and fashionable. We promote it because it challenges our students in a new environment, expanding his or her consciousness. I understand that many employers now look past the academic grades, and instead look for evidence whether a job applicant has had experience living overseas in an unfamiliar environment, in which overcoming challenges and social survival are proven skills. At HKUST 30% of our students now go on overseas exchange programs. In business programs, 50% of them do. We are aiming at 50% overall.

You have all heard about the 334 reform in Hong Kong and may have wondered whether it has any relevance for the HR professionals. I would say a lot. If you want to reduce this reform to one word, I would suggest the word "discovery" for a learning style that is the polar opposite of "rote" learning under the old system. I know you professionals are more interested in the outcome, rather than the process. But in education, process is half the battle. So, I will briefly speak on process.

Learning is like cooking. The more ingredients you have on the chopping board, the easier it is to cook up an exciting dish. So, we aim to offer our students a broad-based education, and exposure to arts, humanities, social sciences and physical sciences. You never know what will emerge from these different raw materials. A creative person is a curious person, who wants to know everything under the sun.

There is something else we are doing to promote confidence in being creative. We call it "learning by doing". It has been accepted that "we remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we see, and 80% of what we do." At HKUST, we have a special research program for undergraduates called "Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program" whose graduates have a remarkable record of being accepted directly into Ph.D. programs in top institutions around the world, many with full scholarships.

After the financial tsunami, the "greed is good" philosophy has been discredited. We now teach our students sound business ethics and a sense of social responsibility. This is why we encourage all our students to go out and serve their community without regard for personal gains. An educated person is a caring person.

And finally, we also have something HR professionals would definitely not approve of, because it takes business away from you. We encourage our students to become entrepreneurs, preferably technological entrepreneurs. You see one of the common complaints of higher education is that graduates of science and engineering are mismatched with the economic needs of the Hong Kong society, often unable to find employment in their field of specialization. Our students are asked not to look just for opportunities, but to create their own opportunities. I was told HKUST has the largest number of graduates of Hong Kong universities working at the HK Science and Technology Parks. 3 companies in S&T in Industry, Education and Research base of HKUST in Shenzhen were founded by graduates and faculty members of the University. One of these companies was co-founded by a graduate of HKUST at a time when he was still pursuing an MPhil degree at the University. One is already listed in the HK Stock Exchange main board. The third one's branded motion control products have taken over 40% market shares in China. In the short term, entrepreneurial graduates may be bad for your business. But when you have an army of entrepreneurs, the businesses they created will end up being your clients and your business. An entrepreneur is an individual who knows the big picture and commands all the skills necessary to solve any business-related problems.

So, let me conclude on a happy note: universities of science and technology are friends of the HR professionals, more than you ever know.

Thank you.