Crystal balls are unreliable: but the visitor to Hong Kong is bound to feel that the alarm often expressed in the Western media about its future after the handover to China may be misplaced, at least as far as the ex-colony's tertiary education is concerned. Everybody knows all about Hong Kong's dizzy growth in productivity during the last two decades. It is the eighth largest trading entity in the world; the value of its exports and imports has increased almost sixfold in the space of the last decade. What is perhaps less common knowledge is the equally remarkable effort to bring tertiary education into line with these burgeoning demands and opportunities. The number of full-time degree students quadrupled between 1985 and 1995. According to the latest statistics, there are 44,446 full-time first-degree, and 8,705 postgraduate, students. Up to the Eighties, an elitist concept had drawn a mere 2-3 per cent of the local population into higher education. But in 1989 (the year of Tiananmen Square), the colony's Executive Council decided that by the middle of the Nineties as many as 18 per cent of the age cohort should be enrolled in university education so as to equip Hong Kong for its future role.
This monumental expansion, financed largely though not exclusively by the taxpayer, has in fact been achieved. It has resulted in a situation not of students chasing too few university places but rather the reverse. The angling for recruits is manifested in the wealth of glossy publications in which competing institutions trumpet the excellence and student-friendliness of the courses on offer.
The current provision of tertiary education is massive. There are as many as six universities as well as an Open Learning University (comparable to our OU), a teacher training institution and, somewhat outside the system but still government-supported, the Academy of Performing Arts. True, some of the universities conjured up during the Nineties are in fact upgraded polytechnics rather than new institutions. But the energy that has gone into creating wholly new or vastly improved campuses is all of a piece with the general building frenzy that fills every empty space in Hong Kong almost as you watch. Half of the university buildings are less than six years old. Obviously, institutions away from the cluttered heart of the island itself or the equally packed district of Kowloon are better placed to expand laterally. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, created in 1963 from the federation of four existing colleges, sprawls picturesquely over a steep hillside just outside Shatin in the New Territories. By way of contrast, Hong Kong University, the territory's senior tertiary institution (it was founded in 1911), has no way to go but up in its expansion. The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which opened in 1991, occupies a 150-acre site on the Clear Water Bay peninsula, with stunning views over a sea dotted with islands. There is more emphasis here on research with a strong practical slant than at some of the other universities which see teaching as their primary responsibility. …