10 February 2017
by Ka Ho Mok

Towards collaborative governance of universities

The success of the higher education sector in Hong Kong depends on the maintenance of a delicate balance between the call for performance and accountability says Ka Ho Mok in University World News.

Governments in Asia have expended serious effort and concentrated resources on helping a few universities improve their ranking in global university leagues. These efforts have resulted in the gradual growth of Asian universities and their steady high ranking in various university league tables.

At present, universities are being encouraged to collaborate with industry or the business sector and to engage with the community to promote innovation, knowledge transfer and entrepreneurship.

In 2014, in view of intensifying competition in global university rankings, the government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, or HKSAR, launched a critical review of university governance through the University Grants Committee with the aim of enhancing the global competitiveness of publicly funded universities in Hong Kong.

An independent task force led by Sir Howard Newby, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, completed a comprehensive review in 2015.

More university-industry collaboration

Facing a highly competitive regional and global environment, particularly where innovation and entrepreneurship has been actively promoted by other Asian economies, the HKSAR has become more proactive in promoting collaboration between universities and industry through innovation and technology transfer, supporting knowledge transfer and entrepreneurship activities.

In the past few years, the University Grants Committee, or UGC, allocated additional funding to the eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong for knowledge transfer-related activities. This funding emphasises the impact of research and the role of technology/knowledge transfer and translational research in driving collaboration in the university sector, industry and the community.

Additional funding schemes were introduced after the establishment of the Innovation and Technology Bureau in November 2015 to engage universities in collaborating with industry and business to commercialise research products.

Given the growing ageing population in Hong Kong, the Innovation and Technology Bureau rolled out a new funding scheme to engage universities and the community in conducting research and knowledge transfer projects in addressing ‘ageing and healthcare’. Other forms of funding schemes have been introduced to promote mid-stream research and lead to the commercialisation of research products.

This development clearly indicates the emergence of a new governance model that calls for collaboration among the government, business sector and civil society to co-produce and coordinate service delivery.

Engaging multiple stakeholders in collaborative governance decreases the dominant role of the state in decision-making. This means non-state actors, such as the market and civil society, will perform a significant role in shaping policy agendas and policy implementation, particularly when ‘collaborative governance’ requires the active participation of non-state stakeholders.

Managing performance, enhancing accountability

Despite the fact that public universities in Hong Kong have a strong quality culture, the reputation risk facing the university sector has generated public concern, especially when university governance issues started becoming more politicised in 2014 following the rise of the Umbrella Movement.

The review engaged university councils and senior managements in seriously considering risk management, performance and public accountability with the aim of helping Hong Kong universities scale new heights and of making risk management a top governance priority.

The UGC and the Education Bureau of the HKSAR were publicly scrutinised for their monitoring of the performance of universities funded by taxation. They invited Sir Howard Newby to conduct a comprehensive review of university governance in Hong Kong by referring to other major university systems in the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and the United States.

Before the review report was released, Newby conducted several rounds of dialogue with key leaders of universities, including key council officers and senior management. He also met students and faculty representatives and consulted university stakeholders.

Six recommendations were published to enhance the effectiveness of governing councils. The Newby report also highlights the importance of developing a generic voluntary code of practice, which specifies the role and responsibilities of council members.

The Newby report urges the eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong to review their governance structures. It says such a review will enhance the performance of universities in Hong Kong and lead to them developing clear strategic plans, reviewing and refining their human resource management, finance and sustainability and establishing a system for managing risk.

The UGC has seriously considered the leadership of university councils based on the six recommendations. The development of good governance under council leadership and a clear performance culture that ensures they are publicly accountable is essential for these recommendations to work effectively.

The Newby report highlights the importance of finance and reputation risks to protect the reputation of the university sector in Hong Kong. It urges universities to develop risk registers and identify methods appropriate for managing the risks identified. Such proposals can be understood as responses to the rise of student activists who question conventional university management and governance and promote democratic university governance in Hong Kong.

After the publication of the Newby report, the UGC formed a task force to follow up the implementation of university governance reform in Hong Kong. At present, the UGC is debating the details of an accountability framework or the ‘Hong Kong compact’.

The UGC is attempting to offer an overarching framework to manage the performance of universities. Major sector-wide performance indicators have been conceptualised in teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, internationalisation, finance management and university governance.

The proposed accountability framework is expected to integrate key aspects of performance by promoting synergy across review measures, such as the quality assurance of teaching and learning, research assessment and academic development plans. A few major sector-wide performance indicators will be adopted for inter-university comparisons.

However, the list of key performance indicators (KPIs) or performance measures (PMs) has not yet been finalised. Thus, individual universities exercise their autonomy in developing other KPIs that reflect their unique missions, visions or roles.

The proposed accountability framework will hold council chairmen and university presidents accountable by negotiating KPIs that are consistent with the strategic development plans of individual institutions.

We understand that university heads and council chairmen are expected to meet the task force convenor Sir Howard Newby this month to further deliberate the details of the proposed accountability framework, followed up with a formal agreement signed between the UGC and the universities.

Once the agreements are signed between the UGC and the respective university councils, the universities should ensure that they will deliver what they have promised on the KPIs and strategic directions.

When the proposed accountability framework is implemented, the universities in Hong Kong will presumably have to work hard to earn their reputation as well as win funding support based on their performance. The performance reviews of universities are subject to international evaluations and cross-sector comparisons. However, the UGC is sensitive to the different roles of universities.

After signing the performance agreements with the UGC, the universities are expected to demonstrate strong evidence of good performance following ‘fit-for-purpose’ reviews which have a strong performance-driven orientation.

Implications for university governance

Newby’s review of university governance suggested the introduction of a strong performance-led regulatory regime in Hong Kong universities. The call to deepen collaboration among universities, industry, business and the community will facilitate the emergence of a ‘collaborative governance’. Thus, an increased number of non-university stakeholders will become involved in future research and academic-related activities.

Universities in Hong Kong will adopt international benchmarking and stringent performance evaluations when running their institutions to address intensified competition for global leadership.

University governance in Hong Kong will offer market ideas and practices to transform universities under the ‘corporate model’ of governance by positively responding to the accountability framework. ‘Collaborative governance’ will emerge when the provision of higher education becomes increasingly diversified with multiple non-state stakeholders.

Universities in Hong Kong will encounter potential tensions driven by two related models of governance, namely, ‘market governance’, which stresses the importance of performance, and ‘collaborative governance’, which emphasises the importance of ‘public participation’.

Striking a balance between these two governance models requires wisdom on the part of university leaders in Hong Kong who can address the contentious relationship between professional knowledge and appropriate skills.

The drive towards performance management will inevitably lead to the potential risk of over-standardisation of performance indicators for addressing public accountability.

Given the diverse missions, visions, histories and aspirations of the eight publicly funded universities in the city-state, the UGC must be highly sensitive in adopting a ‘standardisation risk’. Such an approach could become counter-productive in developing a diverse but dynamic higher education system in Hong Kong.

The success of the higher education sector in Hong Kong depends on the maintenance of a delicate balance between the call for performance and accountability. Success also depends on the necessity of embracing diversity in higher education provision and respecting their unique but different roles in university development.