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6 May 2010

University of Oxford - The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Presidents Forum
Global Tertiary Education Development
President's Speech
 

Prof Hamilton, principals, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to begin by thanking Oxford University Press for organizing this forum and for giving me the honor to share the platform with Prof Hamilton.

Prof Hamilton and I just came back from the 4th Chinese-Foreign University Presidents Forum in Nanjing. We discovered in Nanjing just how much we have in common, although we were born in two separate countries on two separate continents. We are both scientists, both educated during our young years in our home country, went to the US for higher education, stumbled into academic administration and even joined Yale University as fellow faculty members. Last fall, Prof Hamilton returned to his native England to head up Oxford, and I came back to Hong Kong to take up my HKUST challenge. In future, some of you will follow our footsteps by going abroad and returning to serve. But some of the flow may be in reverse, people coming East - to Asia, to China, in addition to the US. Truly, our commonality is the essence of the global nature of the "academic eco-system", part of the bigger human capital movement across the globe.

To continue this comparison, Prof Hamilton and I are even about the same age. But the big difference between us is the age of our universities. Oxford is over 900 years old, while HKUST is barely 20. That makes us a baby compared to grandfather Oxford. Over its many centuries, I understand that Oxford has produced 12 saints. We cannot compete in that department. But we hope to produce the same kinds of global talents that Oxford has produced down the centuries.

Well, OK, there is another small difference. On paper, our rankings are not that far off from Oxford, which is ranked in the global top 5. We are merely at world no 35. But now, if I ask the parents and principals here to form a line for getting your kids into Oxford, that line will stretch to Prince Edward Road, while the line for HKUST may not even get past this podium. But I say to you and to Prof Hamilton: watch out, Oxford, we have another 900 years to catch up to you!

Let me say that HKUST is not exactly Oxford's poor Eastern cousin, for reasons that may not be that obvious to you. Young as we are, we do have a thing or two to show for our first 20 years. You may have heard that our joint Executive MBA program has been ranked first in the world two times in the last three years. Our MBA program was ranked in the top-10 in the world this year. When you consider that there are more than 2000 MBA programs in the US alone, you know this is no small achievement. We are probably the first and only university in Hong Kong and Asia to be ranked no 1 globally in anything educational. If this sounds like a sales pitch to you, it is. When you stand next to Oxford, what else can you do?

I don't know if it is appropriate to compare the upstart HKUST with venerable Oxford. Are we comparing apples with oranges? I don't think so. If you leave the age and the tradition aside, there is an underlying fundamental common core between us. Oxford is famous for its tutorial system (I am not talking about the multimillionaire tutors in Hong Kong). From Prof Hamilton, I understand that this is a very expensive system to maintain, and it often involves cutting back on other needs of the university.

HKUST on the other hand has been created to be a research university. We therefore have a very strong research culture on campus. In fact, we have started an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in which more than 90 professors take part mentoring more than 200 undergraduates in research. Students have a one-on-one opportunity to discuss research and problem-solving questions in depth with their mentors. This is an intensity that rivals Oxford's tutorial system. As you know, in most universities, students don't get to take part in research projects until they are well into their postgraduate studies. The results of this program are astounding. This year, more than 30 of our bachelor degree graduates, armed with their research records and publications, have been accepted directly into Ph.D. Programs by leading universities such as Yale, Princeton and Stanford, most of them with full scholarships.

Some people wonder how we are able to achieve so much within so short a time. It is summed up in that famous Chinese triple factor: "timing, location and people". In "timing", our founding fathers saw the need for science and technology education and research in HK as our manufacturing base moved north to China two decades ago. In "location", we are right next to the recent Asian economic boom and a fast-rising China. In "people", we set very high standards in attracting the best faculty from around the world, hired exclusively on merit, and they in turn have attracted excellent students both locally and globally.

Now let us return to a very fundamental question. What is the essence of a world-class university? I can tell you what it is not. It is definitely not about providing a narrow vocational training. In Hong Kong, students often choose their programs with definite job prospects in mind. But in these fast-changing times, how many people stay in their first job, or even their second job?

So, if not for vocational readiness, what kind of students do we want to accept or educate? We look for and will train students who can think critically, creatively, independently and see the big picture. In this objective, I believe the Oxford goal and the HKUST dream is the same.

But the two universities are different in their social environment. Hong Kong is very lucky to be in the backyard of the world's fastest growing economy, hungry for science and technology. This presents us with an opportunity and challenge that few places enjoy. I dare say that even Oxford doesn't enjoy this advantage of proximity and intimacy. In a recent report, the State Research Council in China specifically recommends Hong Kong to develop science and technology in support of national development. If we continue to put all our eggs in the financial services basket, we may soon break our eggs. In fact, the recent survey shows that Hong Kong is no longer the most competitive Chinese city in innovation.

Science and technology is about innovation. Yet in this city, the popular obsession is playing the stock market or the property market. This is essentially a gambling activity in which the returns can be immediate. Hong Kong is Macau with property and stock casinos. Basic research, however, never yields immediate results. You will remember that Hong Kong's own Nobel Laureate Prof Charles Kao had to wait more than 30 years to see the fruits of his breakthrough research. But make no mistake, science and technology is the wave of the future, and our guarantee of future prosperity. The US has all kinds of problems, and yet is still technologically the most dominant force in the world. Prof Rick Levin, the President of Yale University, who was also at the Nanjing Forum, has a message for Asian educators: give up rote learning and nurture critical and creative thinking. He believes that Japan has gone stagnant because its education is typically Asian and that it has failed to innovate. He says that if Google, Microsoft and Apple were Japanese companies, Japan would still dominate the world economically. China knows what it needs, and we here in Hong Kong has all the freedom and the means to give China what she needs. So parents and principals, please keep this in mind when you are helping the young to make their educational choices. In the end it is not vocational skills, but fundamental knowledge and innovative thinking that will serve your children and students longer and better.

To most people in Hong Kong, science and technology is something remote and abstract. Some say that if you cannot plug it into a socket it is not science. In the presence of Prof Hamilton, I offer you a quote from a clever man. He says:

"If it squirms, it's biology; if it stinks, it is chemistry; if it doesn't work, it's physics, and if you can't understand it, it's mathematics."

Well, I know that Prof Hamilton comes from chemistry, and I come from mathematics. I don't want to say any more than that, before I get into trouble.

But now let me return to the theme I harped on before. The essence of a global education means getting out of Hong Kong and surviving in a different culture or country. If you can get into Oxford, I urge you to consider it seriously. But I'd also urge you to consider universities in HK, in particular HKUST. See which one suits your academic interest, geographical connections and career aspirations. What would be a simple choice 20 years ago deserves a more nuanced consideration in this age of what Yale President Levin calls "The Rise of Asian Universities".

For the principals, teachers and education officials sitting in the audience, I have this to say. Hong Kong is in the midst of reforming its secondary and tertiary education. We can only succeed at the university when you succeed in the secondary schools. Don't forget this is called a 3-3-4 program. 4 cannot do much if 3 & 3 doesn't work. You are our partner in education.

For my part, I solemnly pledge that I will do all I can to see that HKUST continues to climb higher as a world-class university, through research mentorship, innovative language training, and the most selective international recruitment.

And now in closing, I offer a story Prof Hamilton told at his installation last October. He said that two hikers were being chased by a bear. One of them quickly put on his sports shoes. The other told him not to bother, because he could never outrun the bear. But his friend said: "I don't have to run faster than the bear. I only have to run faster than you."

Well, ladies and gentlemen, at HKUST, we want to run faster than the bear, and that's why I hope one day we will catch up to old Oxford. I just hope it won't take 900 years. Thank you.

 

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