According to a recent study by Asiaweek magazine, Hong Kong is currently home to five of Asia's top 30 universities. Such recognition is no doubt well deserved and is testimony to the unceasing efforts of both the government and individual academic institutions to offer the highest standards of tertiary-level education.
However, quality never comes cheap. The government has therefore had to commit to providing generous funding for a total of eight institutes of higher learning and has appointed the University Grants Committee (UGC) to administer those funds and ensure they are well spent.
"The UGC meets three times a year to offer strategic advice to the government," says David Leung, the UGC's assistant secretary-general for quality. "With a view to nurturing high-quality people and driving social and economic development, the UGC plays a proactive role in strategic planning of the higher education sector." The committee oversees the deployment of funds, safeguards quality, promotes accountability and encourages each institution to fulfil a unique role based on its strengths.
All eight UGC-funded institutions have self-accreditation status. This means they can exercise full discretion in awarding academic qualifications to students who have completed their studies and achieved satisfactory results. "Each of them has the ultimate right and responsibility to ensure the quality of their academic programmes and research by means of self-assessment," says Mr Leung. "The UGC's mission is not to interfere, but to monitor, advise and enhance."
In doing this, the secretariat takes account of worldwide trends in education and research, as well as public views. It also conducts occasional reviews with the institutions and makes suggestions about areas for possible improvement.
Such actions are expected under the terms of the Performance and Role-related Funding Scheme (PRFS), which aims to assist institutions in adhering to their specific roles and improving overall performance. "We work together with the institutions to enhance the international competitiveness of Hong Kong's higher education sector," Mr Leung explains.
Besides that, the UGC encourages institutions to adopt outcome-based approaches in student learning. "We used to focus on the input and processes and areas such as teaching staff, tools, infrastructure and expenditure," he adds. "The international trend has now shifted to emphasising goals and end results. There is more attention given to developing curricula and assessments based on the intended learning outcomes of students and feedback from graduates."
The expected outcomes have to be clear and the methods systematic. In that way, the process and deployment of resources can more effectively enable students to achieve their course objectives.
The implementation of the four-year undergraduate degree system poses a new set of challenges. It will affect everything from curriculum development to campus infrastructure. "Obviously, there will be many more students on campus, which will create increased demand for learning aids, amenities and space," Mr Leung notes. It will, though, provide an excellent opportunity for institutions to review their programmes and encourage them to examine students' learning needs and reassess standards."
In Mr Leung's opinion, the extra academic year is an opportunity to make some fundamental changes to course structure and curricula. He says, in particular, that more local students should be given the chance to gain international exposure. Having one additional year will also allow students much more time for all-round development.
"A one-semester overseas exchange programme may be a good idea," he notes. "It would give students a chance to learn about cultural diversity and to improve their language proficiency."
Meanwhile, the self-financed associate degree (AA) programmes offered by some of the institutions have been rapidly gaining in popularity. The demand for such programmes is expected to increase steadily and, even though they are not UGC-funded, Mr Leung maintains an interest in their general quality.
"When we review the performance of an institution, we take a holistic approach," he explains. "The Joint Quality Review Committee ensures the quality of all self-financed AA programmes, and the UGC is also currently in discussions about a suitable new mechanism to ensure the quality of institutions' degree-level and above programmes."
As that process continues, Mr Leung believes that students will play their part in upgrading standards and being internationally competitive.
"Their overall standard is already recognised worldwide and the quality of local education should continue to match, if not exceed, international levels," he concludes.