On November 13 and 14, Lingnan University hosted the annual Conference for Higher Education Research (CHER) 2020, offering the education sector a chance to take stock of the valuable lessons learned during the pandemic, and propose ways forward into a radically different, post-COVID future.
Organised by Lingnan’s School of Graduate Studies, Institute of Policy Studies and the Asia Pacific Higher Education Research Partnership, in collaboration with the UK’s University of Bath and Durham University, the theme of this year’s conference was Innovations of Higher Education Amid the Pandemic: Institutional Management, Teaching, and Research Perspectives. Ninety distinguished speakers from 13 countries and regions discussed their ideas and analysis with both in-person and online audiences.
In his opening remarks, Mr Carlson Tong Ka-shing, Chairman of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, hailed the way in which universities have coped with the upending of their usual teaching practices, while accepting the move to online learning has thrown up its own challenges. "Have we done enough to ensure fairness and the integrity of virtual assessments?" he wondered. "Do students enjoy sufficient access to peer support, teaching staff and resources after virtual classes?"
His remarks were followed by a ceremony to launch Lingnan’s new Institute of Policy Studies. In partnership with a number of leading universities around the world, the Institute will support comparative and international research in policy studies, and complement the University’s excellent professional training in policy, development and governance studies.
The conference itself began with a dialogue between an eminent group of academics and industry leaders on the Future Development of Higher Education in Hong Kong after the COVID-19 Crisis.
Mr Joseph Luc Ngai, Managing Partner, McKinsey’s Greater China Office, described how industry will increasingly place a premium on soft skills. Even though few jobs will disappear completely, he predicted that every form of employment will be affected by digital technology and everyone will have to adapt in response: "The world needs more leaders and fewer managers," he said.
Former HKSAR Financial Secretary John Tsang was keen to see Hong Kong’s world class universities help evaluate the innovative products the burgeoning EdTech sector is devising. He cited, by way of example, US-based business Beyond Labz which offers open-ended, virtual-laboratory experiments in chemistry, physics, biology and the physical sciences.
In the light of COVID-related financial losses, Prof Anthony Cheung, Chairman of the Government’s Committee on Self-Financing Post-Secondary Education, predicted that private higher education institutions in Hong Kong will need to start placing a greater emphasis on professional and vocational training.
Prof Wong Yuk-Shan, President of the Open University of Hong Kong, welcomed the fact several of the SAR’s universities have opened campuses across the border. "Research opportunities and funding in Hong Kong are rather limited because we don’t have big corporations; we don’t have a lot of industrial R&D, unlike in the GBA."
Summing up, Mr Kenn Ross, Managing Director of Asia, Minerva, said he wanted the CHER conference to be a call to action. "As horrific as COVID has been for so many people around the world, for education it is acting as a very powerful catalyst for change."
The first morning of the conference also featured the ceremony launching Lingnan’s new Institute of Policy Studies. In partnership with a number of leading universities around the world, the Institute supports comparative and international research in policy studies, and complements the University’s excellent professional training in policy, development and governance studies.
At the end of the dialogue session, participants pitched questions to the panel.
Dr Kang Yu Yang, Postdoctoral Fellow from Lingnan asked how traditional universities can differentiate themselves from established online course providers. Responding, President Cheng agreed with Prof Cheung that a mixed pedagogical approach was key. "Universities have to find a perfect combination of blended learning, so you maximise the benefits from face-to-face and online [learning]," he said.
Dr Xiong Wei Yan, Research Assistant Professor from Lingnan, asked the panel whether they had an optimistic or pessimistic view of future graduates’ employment prospects. Though Joseph Ngai was, in general, optimistic, he believed the transition to a new pattern of employment will be difficult. "I am much more concerned about inequality, and the uneven distribution of the effects on people, rather than net increases or decreases for society."
Answering Lingnan University Vice President Prof Joshua Mok’s question about how the changing requirements of business would affect partnerships between Hong Kong and universities in the Greater Bay Area, John Tsang pointed to the way in which companies are taking matters into their own hands and running short courses to provide staff with new skills.
There were also five keynote speeches delivered by renowned international scholars.
In his final words, Prof Mok thanked everyone involved in making the conference such a success - from the illustrious speakers on stage and on screen, to his industrious colleagues working behind the scenes. He went on to say that, once the pandemic has abated, we should avoid going back to the pre-crisis normal. “This is a moment for us to engage in the three ‘R’s: review, reinvent and restructure.”
Universities have a wider role than simply preparing our students for the labour market, he continued. We should help them become engaged global citizens. Similarly, he wanted to see greater collaboration between institutions in different countries.
He ended by emphasising the current importance of four ‘C’s: along with COVID-19, he suggested we focus on compassion, and connectivity for cooperation.