Universities must focus on students - not the rankings

Updated: 2015-09-10 09:30

By Raymond So(HK Edition)

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Last week I watched a documentary entitled Ivory Tower at home on a subscription movie channel. It tries to explore various issues relating to higher education in the United States. The interviews with some young college students were very thought-provoking. The interviewees were from various schools, including less famous state universities and members of the Ivy League. The experiences of these young people raised a lot of questions about the higher education system in the US.

Having engaged in university employment for the past 20 years, I have witnessed changes in Hong Kong's higher education system. I have experienced - as a professor, a researcher and an academic administrator - many of the problems facing higher education in Hong Kong. Ivory Tower tries to inform people about the problems of higher education from the perspectives of young people - which are often overlooked.

It poses a serious question: Do young people really benefit from the high cost of higher education? Today, US college tuition fees reach as much as $60,000 per year, and US students have accumulated more than $1 trillion in debt. When students graduate, they are burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. This has caused young Americans much heartache. In the documentary, one parent asks the staff of a college admission office whether his daughter can get a decent job after graduation. The father is not talking about a high-paying professional job. He only wants his daughter to get a "decent" job. The staff repeatedly stress the value of education and avoid giving a direct answer. It is obvious that a college education cannot guarantee a good job. The brutal reality is that many graduates have no chance at all to apply what they have learnt in college during their working lives. This means they have wasted a huge amount of tuition, money and four or more years of hard work.

Worse still, young people's discontent is often misunderstood by the older generation. Many older people may be fond of saying, for example, that they became successful after financing their college education by doing part-time jobs. Some even call discontented youngsters "spoilt brats". But the reality is different generations encounter different problems. We have to face the fact that upward mobility is much slower nowadays. The magic formula of achieving social upward mobility by simply attaining a college degree no longer works today.

In today's world, one can no longer expect that a college degree and hard work will be the ultimate solution to life's problems. Some of the cases in the documentary give the audience a better understanding of what young people think. They also let the audience feel the stress and dissatisfaction of young people in regard to higher education.

In the past, university administrators had to be kind and tolerant. A university was there to nurture young people - who were going to lead society. Students were supposed to work hard in the quest for knowledge, and also be critical of society. University was also a place where academics and scholars met. They respected one another in terms of their academic standing. But they also disagreed over issues. University administrators had to accept many different views and lead their institutions forward.

Nowadays, universities are more like modern enterprises - with too much emphasis on performance indicators. Intense competition exists among universities as they try to attract the best students and teachers. The "ranking game" makes this problem even worse. University administrators now pay greater attention to performance indicators in an attempt to ensure their accountability. The end result is that university management only looks at hard figures, rather than the young faces seeking enlightenment. And in order to achieve the requirements of these impressive indicators, a lot of financial resources are needed. Hence, students have to pay ever-increasing tuition fees.

In the documentary, there is substantial coverage of an incident when students occupied the president's office of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Arts. The institution was where the great inventor Thomas Edison received his education. But it is not well-known in Hong Kong. It was set up by Peter Cooper, a great 19th century industrialist. Cooper wanted to provide free higher education to young people who might not be able to afford it. Until two years ago, Cooper Union did not collect any tuition fees from students. But it is now aiming at new levels of success and wants to compete with elite rivals, so it is charging tuition fees.

Will Hong Kong universities follow in US universities' footsteps in chasing performance indicators - and forgetting the well-being of students? I certainly hope not.

Universities must focus on students - not the rankings

(HK Edition 09/10/2015 page8)