Hong Kong’s status as an academic hub could be undermined by the protests that have gripped the territory, fear scholars. Cancellations of a conference and several student exchange programmes have been seen as early signs of the potential impact of the demonstrations and the increasingly authoritarian response of the Hong Kong government.
And although many academics are sympathetic to protesters’ demands for greater democracy, they are conscious that the reputation of Hong Kong’s universities hinges on the city’s high level of academic freedom and its position as a global travel hub. Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University, London, told Times Higher Education that the impact “will depend on what happens in the next few months”. “Universities with collaborations with Hong Kong institutions are unlikely to make major changes at the moment. But if the situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate, partner universities elsewhere will have to review some practical arrangements,” says Tsang. “We in universities have a duty of care to our students, and we would prefer not to send our students in harm’s way. But the situation in Hong Kong has not reached such a point — at least in my view,” he adds.
Others appear to feel that point has already been reached. Singapore’s education ministry has told its public universities to postpone trips to Hong Kong, including some related to exchange programmes involving more than 100 students.
The Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) says it’s cancelling a major conference on global health set to take place at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in November and rescheduling it for 2021. The university was “aware of the concerns of some foreign visitors about visiting Hong Kong at this particular time”, says APRU.
However, Hong Kong University says its enrolment of international students this year remains “robust”. The institution’s undergraduate programmes admitted some 700 non-local students this term, about half of whom are from mainland China. A “very small” number of students has decided not to enrol for various reasons, said a spokeswoman recently.
However, concerns have been raised about the welfare of Hong Kong academics and students making trips to mainland China. A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union in August found 93.6 percent of respondents are “quite concerned” or “deeply concerned” about themselves or their colleagues crossing the border.
Hong Kong’s two medical schools — at HKU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — have delayed or cancelled trips across the border, which are normally a required part of the curriculum.