An academia that is losing its soul

馬傑偉教授,謙謙君子,少作批評。但前天談到逝世不久,人類學系的呂烈丹教授的求真和堅守原則的治學精神時,仍難免感嘆今天學術界生態的扭曲,這正好說出我這十年來的感觸:

「我這兩年都沒有參與大學行政工作,out of sight, out of mind。但近日免不了要參與會議,中途走進會議室,聽到同事們如何追趕行政指標提高產量增加「影響因子」,覺得這個學術世界離開我很遠很遠。做硏究做老師的初衷為何?做學問傳授知識究竟所為何事?」

我們批評一些學校放棄理想和教育原則,只求競逐表面成績而對學生大量催谷和操練,但同時,大學也只懂得爭相把頭裁進去競逐排名,誰人還記得大學教育的目的,做學問的意義?

一些學者選擇離開這日漸失去靈魂的學術界,我想我是明白的。

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A message for the VC-elect

About two weeks ago, the Chinese University administration announced that Professor Stephen Sung was recommended as the Vice-Chancellor-elect, and that he would be meeting with representatives of the staff, the students, and the alumni. The Chinese University Employee General Union (CUEGU) then issued an email to all members to collect views for its representatives in preparation for the meeting with Professor Sung. In normal circumstances, I seldom take such consultations seriously. But on this particular occasion, I suddenly felt an urge to write to the Union with my views. Here is the email I wrote to the chairperson of CUEGU:

As I’m not able to attend the consultation due to a work duty, I’d like to send in the 2 comments below:

1. CUHK becoming a university with no character.

As a staff member who has served CUHK for 19 years, under 4 VCs, I have found that CUHK is becoming just like any other university in Hong Kong, keen only to compete for external funding, without considering how external manipulation by agencies such as UGC and QAC have distorted the purpose of university education. As a result, in the last few years, CUHK has only been REACTING to external policies, such as OBA, the Audit report by the Visiting Panel, etc. (And now the assessment policy: we are letting bureaucrats tell us how to assess our students!) The University has been playing nice to the authorities, in order to secure more funding, without critical reflection on the educational value of these policies. I believe that we as a university should take an active role in leading society’s reflection on the purpose of university education, instead of just joining the dog fight. As for 中大人是「屬於少數知道自己是對,而且敢說出自己觀點的人」I haven’t seen this for years. (*The Chinese sentence is quoting Professor Sung, who once said so in his capacity as Head of Shaw College.)

2. Manipulating staff through short-term work contracts and appraisals

When I joined the University in 1991, the norm was to offer a new recruit superannuable appointment after probation. That was an indication of respect to academic staff. I can understand that in case the future of a department is not exactly certain, it might be necessary to put aside a small proportion for contract staff. . But now, even when this is not an issue, the University is using short-term contracts to manipulate staff and to stretch their performance. Appraisal in those days was re-affirmation of a colleague’s contribution to the department and university. But now, it has become a race with no definite finishing line. We can all accept the importance of minimum performance standards. But the situation now is one of using contract renewals and appraisals., to keep exploiting staff endlessly.  I hope the University will understand that the best way to motivate staff to strive for excellence is to respect them, take pride in them, and make them proud of their work, not by manipulating them through contracts and appraisals.


I can understand that the global trend of managerialism and so-called public accountability, and league tables, have resulted in many universities, both locally and globally, joining the rat race. But this is exactly the moment when we have to show society that CUHK is DIFFERENT: CUHK is a caring university; she cares about society; she cares about her staff. CUHK is a leading university: she leads society in demonstrating what real university education is all about; she leads by exploring what is really good for humanity.

Dr Paul Sze
Dept of Curriculum and Instruction

The chairperson of CUEGU, acknowledging receipt of the email, pledged to forward the message to Professor Sung, and the Search Committee.

Those who know my temperament will know that a message like the above is exceptionally strong-worded from me. In retrospect, I probably didn’t write to express my expectations for the new VC, but the chairperson’s call for views had triggered the outburst of my frustrations with the direction that CUHK had been heading in. I know that CUHK is not alone in joining the academe rat race. In fact, newcomers to the CUHK faculty may not see anything wrong with it. But perhaps I have had higher hopes for CUHK because of her history, perhaps I am an alumnus, and perhaps because I still believe that universities can be society’s conscience, ……

Competitive research grants

Of course, competition for external research funding is not intrinsically evil. The important thing is  to put it in proper perspective, and not to become slaves to it.

In today’s Apple Daily, Tsao Tsit’s caricature of a fictitious case of research funding in his column is a useful reminder to those involved in administering and bidding for research grants:

(…)

十二年過去了,也是到了重新正確評價董建華先生的時候,正如國內,許多貧苦同胞,支持毛派,覺得要正確評價毛主席一樣。
我覺得,首先要由中文大學 成立一個「董建華思想研究所」,對董先生的治港哲學和理念,從頭進行理順、梳爬,尤其是「八萬五」,作為董先生個人的核心思想,承接「安得廣廈千萬間,大 庇天下寒士俱歡顏」的杜甫詩的不朽主題,而後順藤摸瓜,抓住我國儒家「大道之行也,天下為公」的大同理想,才可以具體地,鮮活地,正確地,抓住這位偉人貫 穿一生的價值重點。

董建華思想,博大精深,由於上承清末民國上海儒商的家教修養傳統,旁徵舊上海英租界時沾染的西洋思潮,更要了解馬克思、凱恩斯,乃至前港督麥理浩的經濟理念與董建華思想學說的內在互動關係,這樣,就能大致勾勒出董建華思想體系的神髓了。
此一特區學術工程,由於規模浩大,自然不能沒有政府撥款。學者和文化界,可以聯名向曾蔭權伸手要錢,他給不給、給多少,就是考驗這個曾蔭權器量的試金石。
上馬要加快速度,進行要加快力度。董先生年事漸高,可幸記憶尚算清楚,及早進行董建華思想資料的保育和搶救,還來得及的,拖延再三,再任由民主派阻撓,就是全香港市民的損失。
家有一老,如有一寶,中國人最敬老,今後凡施政報告、財政預算宣讀、七一慶回歸大典,請董生他老人家站出前台,站在小曾旁邊,協助小曾撥亂反正,也維持市民對特區前途的信心。
一想到成立研究所,政府有得撥款,你就開心得睡不着覺了。
幾時開放投標,交 proposal?你一定填表的,對不對?下一步就是諮詢國際學術界,像哈佛、牛津,請他們也派學者來。董建華思想,研究下去,說不準還發現,是屬於全人類。

  • 陶傑)Apple Daily, November 4, 2009.

The academe rat race

The academe rat race

YESTERDAY, there was a big advertisement in the newspapers placed by HKPU’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management commemorating the School’s coming out second in the latest global ranking of Schools of Tourism by the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research. The news was reported in many local newspapers.

***

YESTERDAY, I attended Chung Chi College’s 58th Founders’ Day thanksgiving ceremony. The main speech was delivered by Professor Rance Lee Pui Leung, former Head of Chung Chi, who retired last year after serving CUHK for over thirty years. He talked about his dreams for college life and college education, and lamented that in the last few years, fewer and fewer teaching colleagues had been able to involve themselves in college activities. The time they locked themselves up in their offices writing papers had increased, and so had their grievances. Life for them had become monotonous, in a never-ending struggle to satisfy the University’s ever-escalating appraisal requirements.

I salute Professor Rance Lee for his outspokenness.

***

I applaud the achievement of HKPU’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management.  After all, their faculty must have put in huge efforts in research and publications to achieve the ranking.

But one must also ask a lot of questions, such as:

(a)   What is the meaning of ranking itself? What is the difference between say Rank 3 and Rank 6? Is Rank 3 a ‘better’ School than Rank 6? If so, what is meant by ‘better’? What are the criteria being used in ranking the schools? Is there really such a thing as 100% objective ranking criteria? Is there such a thing as a 100% objective ranking process?

(b)   What is the nature of the ranking organization? What is its motive in building a league table? Is there a chance that it is doing that to boost up its own status?

(c)    What is the relevance of such rankings for the good of society?

(d)   How might this whole business benefit the students?

(e)   How should we make sense of such rankings? If School X, the former Rank 2, finding that its position has been taken by HKPU, doubles its effort so that in the next ranking, it regains Rank 2 pushing HKPU to Rank 3, is HKPU then doing worse? Should then HKPU re-re-double its effort so that it regains Rank 2 in the following year? And if it does, and then does regain Rank 2, should School X re-re-re-double its effort to get back its position?

***

A few days before YESTERDAY, over lunch with a long-time colleague, I happened to use the term ‘墮落‘ to describe academia, which in the last ten years has only been too keen to bury itself in competition after competition. I was amused that my colleague had had a similar idea.

Do we still care about the purpose of university education? Do we ever take a moment to think whether we are benefitting anyone with our research and publications? In fact, do we still enjoy our work? Do we still have a mission? Do we still believe that we are society’s conscience?

Or have we already accepted that there is no such thing as purpose or meaning, so that all we need to do is to join the dog fight and the rat race?

***

But aren’t two things obvious enough?:

(1)   If we are forever obsessed with a competition mentality, then remember: It will be a race with no finishing line.

(2)   We can all ‘win’, without ‘beating’ others.

***

Beginning about twenty years ago, most countries in the world suddenly saw the need to increase the number of their universities, to raise their economic competitiveness in the global market. But these governments hardly had enough funds, or were unwilling to invest enough funds, to back up the sudden expansion. Hence, while previously respecting universities’ autonomy after funding them was the norm (compare Governments funding the judiciary but refraining from bossing them around), governments began to adopt an economic, competitive, approach, in financing tertiary education to (a) cut costs, and (b) impose their agendas on universities. This triggered a plethora of new policies at different levels that gradually led to the situation we have today: university administrators becoming CEOs instead of scholarly leaders; innumerable rankings and league tables; never-ending external and internal audits; ever-escalating performance appraisal standards; widening chasms between the work of research and the actual needs of society (with Education being one perfect example); and vanishing teacher-student relationships.

Hence, I am not singling out HKPU’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management. After all, there are so many such league tables and competitions in academia already. But I am deeply concerned that universities around the world and the thousands of academics who work in them, are not critically aware enough of the path that we are going down. Or perhaps we have the awareness, but (a) want to exploit the situation for our own benefits, (b) feel powerless to do anything about it, or (c) have lost hope already.

***

We need not do away with all competitions and evaluations. But we need to ask ourselves time and again when we are engaged in academe competitions, evaluations, and appraisals:

(a)   At what costs?

(b)   What for?

++

POSTCRIPT

The post above was written on the day before yesterday. Today, I came across the following extract in an article by 左丁山 in Apple Daily, on the ranking criteria currently applied in the UK:

(…) 現代體育向錢看,教育何嘗不然。睇吓《金融時報》嘅 EMBA排名榜,香港科技大學與美國西北大學合辦嘅課程係世界第一,排名榜之一個重要準則就係畢業生人工夠高,加薪幅度夠大,仲唔係向錢看?讀 EMBA唔會追求學術,只為追求一張沙紙,一年多嘅嚴格商業教育,為咗有一張沙紙令自己搵工易啲,薪水多啲,純粹係向錢看行為。想唔到嘅係,英國「就業和技能委員會」發表報告,英國大學排名制度嘅標準,應該按學生滿意度、學校輟學人數與畢業生收入高低,來決定學校與課程嘅排名,學校須要與社會配合,開辦課程切合僱主的需要,以獲得更高評分。嘩嘩嘩,咁嘅排名方法,英國大學咪變成職業訓練學校?人人讀律師、會計師、金融等科目,排名實高啦,文學戲劇歷史哲學系可以收檔,假如香港有呢類報告,一定有大量文化左派齊齊炮轟,不過係英國報告噃,或者有人要求香港跟風呢?

  • (左丁山)