Hong Kong, Ferrets and the Future of Academic Freedom

It’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in 30 years. China may well have assumed global pre-eminence by some measures, but it’s difficult to see that Hong Kong will retain the academic freedom of the past and be viable as an international education hub.

November 2, 2014

In her excellent book on education hubs Jane Knight offers a lot of interesting points and analyses. There are a number of cities and regions that are actively promoting themselves as education hubs, often investing money, real estate and personnel to attract HE providers with a recognised brand — Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar, Seoul, UAE, Botswana, Panama City, Monterey and new entrants such as Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Bahrain.

Despite not usually making the list, a lot of the large cities in mainland China have an “education zone” and some like Suzhou have a very large concentration of local, national and international institutions.  China is arguably pursuing a global knowledge economy more aggressively than any other country, so why isn’t Suzhou considered an international higher education hub? The answer may lead to better understanding of the current situation in Hong Kong.

If one of the defining characteristics of a global education hub is academic freedom, then Suzhou is excluded because China does not guarantee academic freedom as a basic right. Close scrutiny for compliance with national directives is imposed on both national and international institutions. By comparison, KAUST located in Saudi Arabia, a country that is often referred to as one of the most strictly governed states, enjoys a guarantee of academic freedom. But perhaps the “otherness” of KAUST is what keeps its global qualities from conflicting with local constraints underscored perhaps by the perimeter fence that separates it from the rest of the Kingdom.

Paraphrasing Cary Nelson, there are two key areas of academic freedom that seem most relevant here, and both come with attendant areas of concern. First, academic freedom means that both teachers and students can engage in intellectual debate and remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments without fear of censorship or retaliation. It protects the right of scholars to express views without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or when those views demonstrate professional ignorance, incompetence, or dishonesty with regard to a scholar’s discipline or expertise. Academic freedom also protects the right to challenge another’s views, but not to penalize them for holding them. More broadly, academic freedom encompasses both the individual and institutional right and responsibility to maintain academic standards. The problem is, where this jurisdiction ends. Does academic freedom apply outside of the academy? Beyond KAUST’s perimeter fence? What does this mean for Hong Kong’s institutions?

Second, academic freedom means that the political, religious, or philosophical beliefs cannot be imposed on students or teachers and protects both from reprisals for disagreeing with administrative policies or proposals. It does not give students or faculty the right to ignore college or university regulations, nor does it protect them from non-university penalties if they break the law. The greatest area of contention is whether it gives teachers and/or students the right to criticize regulations they believe to be unfair. I’m thinking the CPC offices on every national and international campus in China (and maybe some overseas). 

On the other hand, academic freedom ultimately depends on a complex combination of authority, authenticity and autonomy. Expertise is no longer a counter-balance to intuition or prejudice. By making data and information readily and freely available, both within and without the academy, individuals can reach their own conclusions about anything, using information selectively, whether they have the intellectual capacity to process data and information to reach valid conclusions or not. Maybe academic freedom will simply dissipate under the weight of popular opinion. Maybe academic freedom is already a thing of the past.

Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby is cited as saying that he believes that, “academic freedom doesn’t really exist today, since we have lost the idea of free speech as a foundational value … We don’t even know what our own opinions mean if they are not tested … Quietude now dominates the academy – I want universities more like bags of ferrets, as they used to be.”

Now, I have no idea how a university was ever “like a bag of ferrets” but I assume that is because English is not my first language. But I do get his point about losing the freedom to propose new and contentious ideas without fear of recrimination because there are those in authority who take personal offense when none was intended. When nation-states are offended, it gets even worse.

So, what is the future of a re-integrated Hong Kong? Will its academic freedom become subservient to the state –academic freedom with Chinese characteristics— and a footnote to the good old days?

The Times, in their quest to publish more and more lists of things academic, have produced a table of the most international universities. The criteria used to judge an institution’s “internationalness” consists of counting the number of international students, international faculty and publications co-authored by at least one author from another country, criteria that seem rather superficial to say the least. But the point is that Hong Kong University comes in at 54th. Not brilliant but on the other hand, no university in mainland China appear in the top 100 because no university in China enjoys the academic freedom necessary to qualify.  Will mainland’s authority squelch Hong Kong?

It’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in 30 years. China may well have assumed global pre-eminence by some measures, but it’s difficult to see that Hong Kong will retain the academic freedom of the past and be viable as an international education hub. Like other Chinese universities, it will undoubtedly acquiesce to “quietude”.


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