Academics from mainland China outnumber Hong Kong faculty

In Hong Kong’s universities, academics of mainland Chinese origin this year outnumbered Hong Kong faculty for the first time, according to official figures, raising fears that an ongoing trend in this direction could affect the international character of universities in Hong Kong, and their culture of open research.

The change is driven in part by an exodus of Hong Kong academics in recent years, in particular since the National Security Law imposed by Beijing came into force in July 2020.

However, talent drives by the Hong Kong government as the Hong Kong population declines, the setting up in Hong Kong of more China-funded research labs, including key laboratories at several Hong Kong universities, and the recruitment of Chinese academics who had been working in universities in the West have also been factors, experts said.

According to figures from Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee (UGC), while mainland academics outnumber Hong Kong-born faculty, they are still an overall minority in most Hong Kong public universities, with the exception of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) – where they make up 48% of academics. This is due to the high number of international faculty in the city’s universities, who make up a third of the total.

The UGC figures show that of 5,120 academics employed by Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities this academic year, 1,815 were of mainland Chinese origin – 35% of the total – compared to 1,650 Hong Kong academics at these universities.

The numbers of Hong Kong academics had dropped from 1,924 five years ago to 1,650 this year – about a third of the total – while mainland academics had risen from 1,224 five years ago.

The number of academics in Hong Kong from the rest of the world has declined slightly from around 34% to 32% of the total.

Effect on research culture

Some Hong Kong academics have privately raised concerns that a preponderance of academics from the mainland could alter Hong Kong’s open research culture. At present around 25% of mainland academics are in science faculties, around 20% of them are in engineering and technology, and a similar proportion are in business and management.

Universities in Hong Kong which have established branches on the mainland have also created a ‘pipeline’ for mainland researchers and academics to come to Hong Kong, whether temporarily or permanently.

Hong Kong academics also privately expressed concerns that if academics of mainland origin overtake the number of Hong Kong and international faculty, Hong Kong research could shift from their own areas of excellence, in which they have built up significant research collaboration links overseas, to research dictated by China’s national priorities.

However, Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said “achieving a balance to make [universities] in Hong Kong more diverse is an advantage”.

“It does not matter where academics come from as much as it matters that they reject orthodoxy and subscribe to the highest values of the global academy,” he told University World News.

Postiglione added that mainland academics were of very diverse backgrounds. “Did they go overseas for a bachelor’s degree? Or did they go for a masters or a doctoral degree? If they went overseas for the doctorate, did they build their careers there [in the West] for 20 years, and then come to Hong Kong? It’s hard to put them all in one box.”

He noted that in the past decade, mainland universities have been rising in quality and in international rankings and with the China producing large numbers of PhDs, it was little surprise that Chinese academics were doing well internationally. “They should be recruited here in Hong Kong,” he said.

“Hong Kong’s universities are strikingly similar in academic character to Western universities. If mainland academics were able to operate in the West at a minimum of a doctorate [level], then coming to a university in Hong Kong is not going to change their academic ethos.”

He added: “It’s good for all as long as it is not tipped too far in one direction or another. Balance is to the advantage of research universities.”

Academics also noted that with the mainland producing many more PhDs than in the past and tenured positions at top Chinese universities becoming harder to come by, more were likely to apply to leading Hong Kong universities.

However, Hong Kong academics who sit on recruitment panels noted privately that the number of applicants per post from the rest of the world has declined substantially in the past five years and particularly since the pandemic and introduction of the National Security Law.

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