China’s surge in global university rankings has come largely at the expense of its neighbours, with competitors shunted backwards by the momentum of the world’s most populous nation. But for its diminutive half-sibling, China’s hulking presence is a launch platform for new opportunities.
Hong Kong’s university leaders say the benefits of living next door to China far outweighes the drawbacks, and lures top academics from around the world. Blessed with a familiar working environment, British-style institutional autonomy, a widespread grasp of English and a plethora of Top 200 institutions, the territory offers a natural base camp for East-West collaborations.
Just a short train ride from some of China’s biggest and fastest-growing finance and technology hubs, Hong Kong universities also have unparalleled access to research partnerships, industry investment and an almost inexhaustible supply of foreign students. “Many universities would like to be sitting exactly where we are,” says Hong Kong University (HKU) vice-president Ian Holliday. “Students around the world can see that China is going to be part of their future, their personal story. We’ve been in the right place at the right time, in a sense.”
Hong Kong’s top universities have experienced continuous improvement in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings over the past three years. Since 2017, the territory has claimed five Top 200 institutions, a total equalled only by London. Prof. Holliday says that inclusion in what is known as the Greater Bay Area — a development strategy encompassing Guangzhou, Shenzhen and seven other Chinese cities clustered around the Pearl River Delta, as well as the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau — promises to accelerate the progress. “The rest of the world is looking at the Greater Bay,” he says. “We would be foolish to ignore it.”
As a hotbed of entrepreneurship and innovation fuelling a gross domestic product of about $1.5 trillion (Rs.107 lakh crore), the region offers enormous business opportunities. And with a population of similar size to the UK, it is a boundless source of international students — not only for subsidised undergraduate places which are tightly rationed in Hong Kong, but also for self-financing Masters programmes.
The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has premises in Hong Kong. But with space limited in the territory, much of the action is taking place on the Chinese mainland, where Hong Kong universities have forged partnerships with companies, district authorities and universities, including China’s prestigious C9 League — the equivalent of the US Ivy League or the UK’s Russell Group.
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), ranked just five places below HKU despite being 80 years younger, also leverages its proximity to China through mainland partnerships. Positioned as Asia’s answer to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and specialising in a similar range of disciplines, it invested strongly in commercialisation and knowledge transfer “from the very beginning”, according to president Wei Shyy.
That Western flavour has lived on, with about 10 percent of HKUST’s undergraduates recruited from outside China and Taiwan, and close to half of domestic bachelor’s students spending a semester abroad. This has generated a rich harvest of overseas exchange students. “We have a large number of non-Chinese students on our campus at any given time,” adds Prof. Shyy.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)