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HONG KONG -- When the South University of Science and Technology of China started its first semester last month, it broke many of the rules of Chinese higher education. It recruited its own students and faculty members, shunning national systems for doing so. It announced that it was looking for people with imagination and innovation, not just basic knowledge. South is planning to offer more money to professors than is standard for Chinese universities, in part to attract foreign talent. The university created a structure without the layers of bureaucracy widely associated with Chinese higher education, and delegated considerable power to faculty members.

Officials at the new university have been widely quoted as saying that the institution they looked to as a model was nearby (physically, at least) -- the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“It’s very much modeled on us,” said Tony Chan, the president of HKUST, as the institution is known here. While Chan could point to the university’s success at building its academic programs, its rise in the rankings (much discussed here) or its close ties to influential businesses in Hong Kong and the rest of China, he said that a crucial reason his university is the model is simply speed. “They don’t want to wait 50 years” to become prominent, he said.

HKUST -- the youngest of Hong Kong’s eight universities -- is celebrating its 20th anniversary. And Chan says that the model here demonstrates the ability of universities in this part of the world to quickly become players in global higher education. One key, he said, is having no hesitation about embracing the American model of higher education.

Chan doesn’t boast about HKUST being the best university in Hong Kong (the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong could also make such claims, although HKUST advocates would say it is very much part of a "top three" here). But he doesn’t hesitate for a minute to say that “we are the most American.”

He should know. A Hong Kong native, he made his academic career in the United States, rising through the ranks to become dean of physical sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles and assistant director of the National Science Foundation before coming to HKUST as president in 2009. One-fourth of the faculty is American and just about everyone here has a Ph.D. from an American university.

“All of my vice presidents have Ph.D.s from the United States,” Chan said, before quickly correcting himself that there is one McGill University doctorate in the group, so the statement should be that they all have North American doctorates. Faculty members are hired and promoted through a tenure system. “Of course we have tenure,” Chan said, when asked about it.

All courses here are in English – except those on Chinese history and culture. English is a natural in Hong Kong higher education due to the long British rule – and the university was one of the final new institutions created with the active encouragement of British authorities here.

The Move to 4

But in the next year, HKUST (and the rest of higher education in Hong Kong) will make a change that will firmly shift the educational model from one that looked to Britain to one that looks to the United States. The bachelor’s degree is shifting from the three-year European model -- in which students focus almost exclusively on their major field of study -- to the four-year American model.

While many observers in the United States are calling for American higher education to become more vocational in orientation, the changes here are motivated by a sense that students need more general education if they are truly to become leaders in Hong Kong and China. Chan recounted a speech he regularly gives to students here: “If you are an accounting major, you should not be an accountant at KPMG, you should be the managing director of KPMG. You must be aware of history, of language, of all the other skills. It’s not the mechanical aspects of accounting.”

A change already in place at HKUST -- normal policy by American standards but "radical," Chan said, for universities in Hong Kong or China -- is to allow student to designate a general field of admission rather than a specific one. So, for example, one can be admitted to the engineering college generally, and not immediately to chemical or mechanical engineering, and so forth.

But the real revolution in higher ed is coming next year. Even with the commitment to general education at HKUST, the three-year design means that most students take 12 to 18 credits of general education, depending on their programs, said Kar Yan Tam, dean of students. But all of the 36 credits being added as the universities shift to four-year degrees will be for general education, not more specialization.

“Of course some professors want more specialization, more advanced chemistry,” said Tam, but there is a wide consensus on the value of general education.

Chan describes a series of new courses being developed. Within broad fields, there will be survey courses exploring the ideas of science, so that students will first go for breadth before burrowing into their majors. And they will be required to add more course work in the humanities and social sciences.

The new courses place a premium on topics that link disciplines and disciplinary categories, and that will challenge students to think creatively -- “Ecology, Culture and Literature,” “Theories of Buddha-Nature,” “The Sustainable Citizen,” “Garbage as Art in Hong Kong.” Further, HKUST is revamping numerous more-traditional humanities courses on history and culture (with a strong China emphasis). The course titles wouldn’t be stunning in an American college catalog, but as Chan and others noted, many students have typically expected to move from one course to another in their majors alone, never venturing into topics that don't relate directly to those majors.

The hope is to change how students think about learning -- a goal of professors even under the existing curriculum.

King Lun Yeung, a professor of chemical engineering here, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, and the dome photo prominent in his office (as well as mournful comments about the state of the football program) suggests his continuing ties. He said that the new curriculum combines with American-style teaching methods to challenge undergraduates.

He said that his students are just as bright as American students and generally work harder (the university takes seriously the idea of 2-3 hours of homework or reading per week for each credit of a course, and most students take 15-18 credits a semester). But where he has to push is on creativity.

In his courses with undergraduates, he will pose a broad question, “and then I shut up and say they have to work through the issues,” he said. Fresh from a sabbatical at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yeung said that with graduate students, the area HKUST is teaching is how to gain confidence with pushing new ideas.

When graduate students start their programs, and he poses a challenge to them, they are likely to search for whatever has been written about the issue, rather than framing a hypothesis. “There is a sense that, 'If I come up with a good idea, someone must have already come up with the same idea, so I’ll look for it,' ” Yeung said. The approach at HKUST is to encourage students to gain the confidence to put forward their own ideas, while also learning the material.

The university also plans to push study abroad. Currently, one-third of HKUST students spend at least a semester abroad -- a figure that is large by the standards of science-oriented universities. Chan said that the number will be up to 50 percent once the new curriculum is in place.

HKUST also wants more foreign students. Hong Kong’s government permits public universities to allocate up to 20 percent of undergraduate slots to “non-local” students (who pay more than twice as much as Hong Kong residents, for whom tuition is 42,000 Hong Kong dollars, or about $5,400). Currently, HKUST’s undergraduate enrollment is about 16 percent non-local, with students coming from all over Asia, and a notable number from Scandinavia. Chan said that as soon as more dormitories are finished, he plans to start admitting more students from outside Hong Kong.

Demand for this style of education is strong. Last year, about 5,000 students from the rest of China applied for 150 slots for them.

Growth Environment

As HKUST ponders growth, it has some key advantages -- compared to institutions in the United States, and to others in Hong Kong, as well.

The central parts of Hong Kong Island -- home to the University of Hong Kong and other institutions -- are packed in ways that make Manhattan look wide open. HKUST, in contrast, sits on 150 acres on a hilly peninsula in East Kowloon -- about a half-hour from the center of Hong Kong, but with room to grow.

From his office with views overlooking Clear Water Bay, Chan points to the new student facilities and another new initiative on the research side -- an Institute of Advanced Study, modeled on the one in Princeton, N.J. HKUST recently recruited Henry Tye away from an endowed chair in physics at Cornell University to lead the institute. Among the scholars who have agreed to serve on the new institute's advisory board are 13 Nobel laureates from around the world.

But beyond space, the university gets support from the Hong Kong government. About three-quarters of the cost of new buildings comes from the government, and the university's 20 years have seen an entire campus sprout up as a result – white tile buildings, with splashes of color, geometrical figures as windows in key locations, and a large red sundial (a Chinese invention) at the center.

The shift to four-year bachelor’s programs means that the undergraduate student body will soon grow by a third, and Chan said that the government has committed to providing funds to hire a proportionate number of new faculty members. (The budget won’t go up by one-third, he said, because government officials have pointed out that there are some economies of scale, such as “needing only one president,” Chan quipped.)

The government and private investors are also backing expansion of two campuses for HKUST in China proper. One, in Nansha, is an R&D campus, paid for by a $300 million donation from a Hong Kong executive. The other, in Shenzhen, includes research space, incubators for businesses, and space for the M.B.A. program.

For now, Chan said, he doesn’t anticipate starting undergraduate programs in China. But he wants to see ties expand. The area across the Pearl River -- very close to Hong Kong -- has a booming population, and many educators there want to work with the university.

So is there a global shift in higher education to China (from the United States), even as universities like Chan’s embrace American-style education? “I sense a shift,” he said. But he quickly added: “Are we going to overtake the U.S.? Not in a long time," even with the massive cuts faced by many American universities.

Great higher education, Chan said, needs “money and talent.” Even with the cuts in the United States (and Chan remains on UCLA listservs such that he knows just how bad it is there budgetwise, and talks with pain about the cuts that are going on), the strengths remain.

But a minute later, he is pulling out the various magazine rankings of the most influential scientists in various fields, and noting the Chinese researchers (some in China, some in Hong Kong, some in the U.S.) who top the lists. So if China and Hong Kong have talent and money, why isn’t he predicting that they will soon dominate higher education?

Money and talent “are necessary but not sufficient” to create outstanding universities, Chan said. That's why he's promoting general education on top of the current base in subject areas. “You need an ecosystem, a culture,” he said. To Chan, that culture must be international -- and that’s part of why he thinks Hong Kong’s mesh of nationalities and close, but still separate, relationship with China make it an ideal spot. But it’s also about “true excellence in teaching and scholarship.”

That, he said, includes academic freedom. Can HKUST export that idea to China? “We are playing a small role,” Chan said. Simply existing with academic freedom -- and advancing at a speed attractive to Chinese government and university leaders -- creates an awareness that could be significant over time, he said.

“We have delegations from every university, and they see,” he said. While many of those delegations visit the top universities in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, he noted that they don’t see institutions there that are both global and Chinese in nature, and they don’t see great universities that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

“We act as a model,” Chan said. “It can be done.”

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