Local relevance and global vision - plus closing remarks from Professor Ka Ho Mok

The final session in this event hosted by THE Liberal Arts Forum, in partnership with Lingnan University, considered how successfully the liberal arts model was taking root in Asia.

In his role as moderator, Professor Chris Rudd, deputy vice-chancellor and head of the Singapore campus of James Cook University, welcomed the other thought leaders taking part in this session. He then set the scene, wondering if Asia was taking the lead in international higher education as the world emerges from COVID.

“We will be considering the really fascinating contribution that liberal arts education is making within these dynamic economies we enjoy here in South, Southeast and East Asia,” Prof Rudd said. “As we look around the region with the rapid urbanisation, with the changes in economic structures and the redrawing of trade blocks, it’s kind of inevitable that planning for tomorrow’s graduate workforce needs to take into account new realities: like resilience, like global connectivity and like worker mobility.”

Explaining the role of Lingnan University within the local higher education landscape, Prof Mok said the differentiation of Lingnan as Hong Kong’s liberal arts university is extremely important. “We asked ourselves how we can create an environment which can produce caring leaders with global vision, who can, at the same time, act responsibly and proactively to solve problems in a local context.”

Prof Mok pointed out that his university engages its students in different types of learning experiences, not just in the classroom, but through service learning and the Lingnan Entrepreneurship Initiative, among other schemes. “Serve to learn and learn to serve are core to the liberal arts tradition at Lingnan,” he said.

While Lingnan has learned from the US liberal arts model, simply copying what has proved successful in a different culture wouldn’t work, he noted. All students at Lingnan take a number of common core courses, such as on the making of Hong Kong, about China and the region, and on the way in which Hong Kong functions as a global city.

Prof Mok said Lingnan’s regular surveys of local employers found they appreciated the international outlook, the ability to think outside the box, and the attitude to work, that a liberal arts education gives graduates.

Prof Rudd introduced Professor Anita Patankar, director of the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, as the pioneer of liberal arts in India. Prof Patankar described higher education in India as a conservative space in which rote learning, as opposed to a sense of curiosity or enquiry, is highly valued. “That may be one of the reasons why, as a nation, we lagged behind for many years in the areas of innovation and research,” she said.

The core team of diverse, but like-minded, individuals who were put together in the early 2000s to transform Symbiosis, have been key to the college’s success, she said. “We had a physicist who was also an inventor; she was creating environmentally sustainable products and training rural communities in sustainable life choices,” said Prof Patankar, citing one example.

Faculty members who were recruited had to change their approach from teaching to learning, and from content to pedagogy, and had to be prepared to be challenged in class – a startlingly new concept in India.

The small class sizes at Symbiosis, and consequentially higher fees, have been questioned – especially when a strong education, rather than employment, is guaranteed. However, Indian employers have come to appreciate graduates with expertise in more than one domain and the ability to solve 21st century problems.

Having worked with disaster relief organisations in underdeveloped countries, Professor Albert Ko, director of the Office of Service-Learning at Lingnan University, said he appreciates how simple technologies can change the lives of people desperate for water, shelter, food and other essentials. Given this, and that Lingnan’s motto is education for service, the university’s technology teaching concentrates on the knowledge and skills required to meet humanitarian needs, rather than on cutting-edge fields such as AI and blockchain.

“This means applying very basic technologies, as simple as a motor or some basic sensors, and putting them together in innovative ways to develop products or service for less wealthy people,” Prof Ko explained. “The main focus is on design innovation and how to scale up technologies.”

Therefore, students at Lingnan don’t need to possess advanced scientific knowledge, as much of what is required is taught in secondary schools. “Our goal is not to train more engineers. We have outstanding engineering schools, we have outstanding technology schools, and we don’t need another one. What we need is a liberal arts university which can raise problem solvers who can work with professional people - public health workers, social workers, lawyers, engineers, technologists - to come up with new solutions.”

In his closing remarks to this two-day event, Prof Mok first thanked all those involved and then used three ‘C’s to articulate his action plan for building a brighter future. “The first ‘C’ is co-promoting liberal arts education to nurture caring leaders with global vision, so they can act responsibly and proactively in managing rapid changes around the world. For the second ‘C’, I call on every one of us to collaborate in forging our own path in liberal arts, reflecting the rich heritage and traditions of our own countries and regions. And for the last ‘C’: I very much hope we can work together and create, in the near future, a caring society.”