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Friday, Sep 30, 2022

How to transform Hong Kong into ‘Asia’s World University City’

How to transform Hong Kong into ‘Asia’s World University City’

As Hong Kong seeks to recover its status as a global finance and aviation hub, we must not overlook the industries of tomorrow. The city should recast itself as more than a financial powerhouse and strive to be one of the world’s great education and technology hubs.

As Hong Kong emerges from the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, much is being said about how the city can recover its status as a major international financial centre, a gateway to the mainland and a crucial aviation hub. This is rightly so, as these areas have been fundamental to our historic competitiveness.

But just as imperative is the city’s economic transformation in preparation for the industries of tomorrow. Higher education in Hong Kong, with its globally recognised reputation for innovation and technology, is a crucial building block for this transformation.

Governments, universities and industry leaders around the world are in a race for talent. Take artificial intelligence: reportedly, there are fewer than 25,000 people considered scientific experts in the field. The gap in quantum computing – the technology that will redefine our ability to solve complex problems and revolutionise economies – is even starker, with reports of fewer than 1,000 qualified scientists.

The good news is that Hong Kong’s universities are well placed to take on these challenges. Five universities are comfortably ranked in the Times Higher Education world top 100, an impressive feat for a city of 7.5 million people. Two of our universities are among the top 10 of the world’s most international universities.

Hong Kong is also the best city for students in China, according to the latest QS Best Student Cities ranking. It ranked 15th globally compared to 25th for Beijing, 27th for Taipei and 37th for Shanghai.

Hong Kong provides a highly desirable, internationally oriented yet regional destination for mainland students as well as a beacon for the world to study in China.

Our performance tells a compelling story about Hong Kong’s status as a diverse, inclusive global metropolis. But we can take nothing for granted. Hong Kong should aim higher and recast itself as more than just a financial powerhouse.

Its economic clout, cosmopolitanism and gateway to the mainland can make it one of the world’s great education and technology hubs.

It can be global in outlook yet intimately interconnected with Asia’s most ambitious and exciting economy. We are poised to be the scientific engine room to power the development of the Greater Bay Area.

Short of enabling quarantine-free travel and reopening our borders, how can Hong Kong attract the world’s best and brightest to help develop our innovation and technology system?

Initiatives such as the Hong Kong government’s HK$2 billion (US$255 million) Global STEM Professorship Scheme are an important step in investing to attract world-class talent to Hong Kong.

The InnoHK scheme, designed to accelerate the commercialisation of research discoveries and partner global universities, is another example of Hong Kong’s commitment to the innovation agenda. These initiatives should be renewed and scaled up.

For Hong Kong to really develop this innovative capacity, though, more is needed. Attracting top-tier professors and elite scientists is important, but we need to cultivate a pipeline of talented scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs so we build sustainable, long-term capacity.

The demographic reality of our ageing population means we must look beyond our borders. This means our universities should work in partnership with industry and the government to reimagine our global positioning.

Using the Global STEM Professorship Scheme playbook, Hong Kong should invest in initiatives to attract postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers to ensure we are the first place talented young people think of as they graduate with research degrees from the world’s best universities.

But the journey to an elite scientist begins well before a doctoral thesis, and scaling up our cohort of bright undergraduate students is an important part of this puzzle. We are already China’s best student destination, and we should invest in scholarship schemes and financial aid to widen access to a Hong Kong degree to students from Belt and Road Initiative countries and the global South.

Hong Kong should also be ambitious in co-investing with the private sector in building an elite scheme to compete alongside global titans such as the Rhodes Scholarship. We must collaborate with well-established global student mobility schemes such as the European Union’s Erasmus Plus programme, Britain’s new Turing Scheme and Australia’s New Colombo Plan to ensure Hong Kong is on the map for the world’s best undergraduates.

Importantly, once we attract international students, we should be thinking about how to retain them. Post-study work visas enabling graduates to pursue career opportunities in student destinations such as the US, UK and Australia have been decisive in attracting international students and plugging critical skills shortages.

We should benchmark our immigration policies against these countries and review opportunities to allow graduates to remain in the city and contribute to our economy, thus fuelling the engine that drives development of the Greater Bay Area and beyond.

Perhaps most crucially, we need to get Hong Kong back on the global science community’s radar. Two years of travel restrictions have crippled our ability to showcase our emerging innovation and technology system to the world’s science and higher education leaders.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has called for a forum of world financial leaders later this year. The higher education and innovation sector needs something similar to reacquaint the world with what Hong Kong represents.

What we represent is clear – a vibrant, open, inclusive and world-leading university system at the forefront of exciting scientific discoveries. Our challenge is to harness these strengths and reconnect with the world as we build for tomorrow’s knowledge economy.

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