Newsletter Special Issue (2004)

Open Letter to Staff and Students of the University Dear colleagues and students, Many of you are probably very concerned about the restructuring of academic departments and programmes at the University, which has been extensively covered in the newspapers recently. I am writing this letter to give you a more comprehensive picture, as some of the reports in the newspapers are incomplete and contain a lot of inaccuracies. Media reports must have been based on the information leaked from the many consultation sessions held on the restructuring proposals. While we cannot say they are spinning stories, these reports obviously fail to grasp the underlying philosophy of the whole exercise or its salient features. Indeed all salient features of the restructuring plan are still proposals undergoing the process of consultation. They need the stamp of the Senate to become formal. [ 1] As the Hong Kong government anticipates a huge fiscal deficit of over $70 billion, all government bureaux and related organizations have to face such a reality and shoulder the burden o f budget cuts. Universities as members of a major sector of the community cannot and should not evade their share of responsibility. Many rounds of discussions have thus been held by the government and the UGC with the universities to address the issue of funding cuts. The eight universities have also accepted w i th some reluctance a 10 per cent reduction in UGC subvention for 2004 -5. Here I would like to add that the Financial Secretary has announced an 11 per cent cut over the next five years in resource allocation to all government bureaux (with the exception of the vote for education, which will be reduced by less than 11 per cent). We have every reason therefore to expect that there should be no further cuts for the universities in the 2005-8 triennium. I f we also take into account the salary reduction (3+3 per cent) to be implemented in line with the civil service pay cut, the University w i ll be faced with a budget shortfall of $384 million in 2004-5, representing an overall funding reduction of 12.3 per cent over 2003-4. Such a staggering figure calls for strategic handling on the part of University management, who intends to cope by (1) phasing in the reduction (over two to three years) to cushion the blow to various University units, and using reserves and donations to meet the estimated shortfall of some $200 million in the first two years; (2) reducing first and foremost allocations to centrally administered funds; and (3) requiring teaching and non-teaching units to share proportionately the same burden. Based on these principles, annual appropriations for teaching units (i.e. faculties and academic departments) will have to be reduced by some $140 million. [ 2] The Un i v e r s i ty has seven f a c u l t i e s, 61 departments, and over 200 programmes. An across-the-board budget cut may be the least strenuous, but will certainly do the greatest harm. Why? Because it means individual departments will have to shoulder cuts much larger than the 4 per cent that is being proposed (to be spread out over three years in a 2-1-1 pattern). Such cuts will be too heavy a burden for the departments, considering they have already suffered a 10 per cent reduction in funding allocation over the last six years. And i f really given such a scenario, layoffs will become inevitable in some units, resulting in long- term damage to the University's teaching and research capabilities. Small departments (such as Anthropology and Japanese Studies) in particular will experience not only the loss of long-term competitiveness but also the pain of immediate layoffs. Academic restructuring is therefore not just an exercise to ease budgetary pressures but a strategic move to preserve the strength of the University. What is more, the University has just entered its fifth decade. With or without budget cuts, it is time for us to conduct an overall review of our strengths and weaknesses. The formulation of a Ten-year Vision Statement and the UGC's affirmation of our role as a comprehensive research university also exhort us to reinvigorate ourselves for our mission ahead. In the proposed restructuring, therefore, we ' ll see the integration of some small departments to achieve synergy and enhance competitiveness. We'll see some undergraduate programmes with sufficient research capability being upgraded to become postgraduate programmes (e.g. materials science & engineering and physical education & sports science). We'll also see certain specialized programmes which are outgrowths or derivatives of one or more departments being reverted to their 'mother' departments (e.g. Internet engineering). A ll these measures are designed to realign resources and strengthen the competitiveness of departments and programmes. The fact is, similar merging and reorganization has never been lacking over the past 40 years at The Chinese University, and has propelled the University forward to what it is today. The current exercise is not unprecedented, neither will it be the last. The history of the University itself consists in series of innovative integrations and restructuring. [3] In short, during the process of restructuring, let us not rivet our attention on those programmes and departments which are to be phased out. Let us also include in our gaze the many new units which will spring up — new departments such as Cultural and Religious Studies, Linguistics and Modern Languages, and new programmes such as MA in sport studies. Some other departments and programmes will be given a new lease of life with a new orientation after integration. A ll in all, the vitality of the University's academic departments and programmes w i l l only be reinforced, and not weakened, after the restructuring. There will also be much more room to promote academic diversity in teaching and research through interdisciplinary integration. I would also like to point out that any restructuring w i ll have its own course to run, and w i ll not affect students currently enrolled in specific departments and programmes. They shall be able to complete their studies as scheduled and earn the degrees they have set out to earn. [4] Dear colleagues and students, whilst the challenge before us is severe and may prove painful, it has at the same time given us the opportunity for rigorous self-inspection and self-strengthening. I want to stress that for each and every proposal for restructuring, we w i l l ask this question: Is it intellectually supportive? We will also follow it up with: Will it achieve any significant cost-savings? Only after we are satisfied with the answers to both questions will the proposal be put to the University Senate for consideration. I should point out specially that all proposals for academic restructuring have been the result of extensive consultation and thorough discussion between the faculties/departments and University management, with the majority of these proposals being initiated by the faculties/departments themselves. The whole process involves scores of formal or informal meetings between senior management (including myself, the pro-vice-chancellors, and many other colleagues) and the faculty deans, department chairmen, directors of studies, and teachers and students of the relevant programmes/departments. I fully realize that as far as consultation is concerned, no amount of communication is ever 'sufficient' and no outcome ever 'perfect', irrespective of the numerous meetings held or the long hours spent over discussion. For this reason I am writing this letter, in the hope that you w i ll appreciate the logic and rationale behind the proposed restructuring and give us the understanding we need for its implementation. [5] I also want to put in a few words here about cost- saving measures proposed for the non-teaching units. Now both teaching and non-teaching units are constituent parts of the University's organic whole, and both are indispensable to our survival and development. What we hope to achieve through our proposal is to avoid large-scale layoffs. That is why a range of options to save costs on a voluntary basis have been put forward, and non-teaching units are allowed sufficient flexibility to manage their funding cut before staff separation schemes are introduced as a last resort. Over the past few months, University management has engaged in dialogue with CUSA and other staff associations on different occasions and in different forms. We have tried our best to consider all feasible proposals and counterproposals. Before any plan is adopted as final, we will continue to consult and negotiate. We hope to strike the right balance between the interests of the University and those of the individuals working in it. [6] I have to thank you, my dear colleagues and students, for your patience in reading through this very long letter. There are yet a few more words which 1 find d i f f i cu lt to withhold. This funding slash is unprecedented in the history of the University in terms of its magnitude and ferocity. When confronted with such a challenge, however, I am deeply moved to have found, from senior management to the individual department and non-teaching unit, many colleagues who manage to face the issue squarely, with a sense of commitment, and always w i th the interest of the University in their hearts. They have not only racked their brains for measures to preserve the University's strength in teaching and research, they have also striven their utmost to sustain its continuous development. I am utterly convinced that The Chinese University is a university on the rise. Its momentum for upward surge has found full expression in our collective response to the challenges posed by the impending budget cut. Let me thank you once again. Yours sincerely, Ambrose Y.C. King Vice-Chancellor 17th February 2004