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KING Sing Yui




KING Sing Yui

Doctor of Science
honoris causa

Mr Chancellor, Mr Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am fully conscious of the honour of being asked to address this congregation by my alma mater. My first word must be one of thanks on behalf of my three fellow graduates, Mr Richard Cerdin Griffiths, Miss Hui Wai Haan and Mr Horace Kadoorie, and myself, for the very high honours which have been bestowed upon us today by the University.

The University of Hong Kong was founded seventy years ago in 1911. Its purpose was to be "the promotion of learning, arts, science and research, the provision of higher education, the conferring of degrees, the development and the formation of the character of students of all races, nationalities, and creeds, and the maintenance of good relations with the neighbouring country of China". As an old student before the last war, and as a member of staff for over thirty years after the war, I can see that the purpose stated at the founding of the University has been maintained all the time during the past seventy years.

Time changes. The face of Hong Kong has undergone, and is undergoing, drastic changes from which only a few buildings have escaped untouched. One such building is the Main Building of the University in which we are gathered this afternoon. Even this has undergone some change in its rear, though not observable from the front. Whatever changes we see, whether they be physical or otherwise, the University remains faithful to the purpose it was called upon by the public to follow. It may thus be appropriate for me, in the seventieth year after its foundation in 1911, to choose as the theme for my address "The University of Hong Kong: Past, Present and Future". I venture to give you some of my reminiscences about the University as to how it has moved with time, together with some projections for the future. There is no attempt to give you its history as, very recently, this has most competently been presented by our former Registrar, Dr B Mellor, in his monumentary work and scholarly volume work.

The Past: the First Thirty Years

Many of our pre-war graduates, especially my fellow Honorary Graduate, Miss Hui Wai Haan, are more competent than I to speak on the first thirty years of this University before the war, as I joined the University only in 1938. The University was a small one with only one-tenth of its present population. It ran on the pattern of a traditional British red brick University offering good first degrees in Arts, Engineering and Medicine. Students from Malaya, Burma, India and China came to the University to receive their education. Lugard Hall, now a wing of the Old Halls, was once a hall in which overseas students crowded together. Science as a degree course was started rather late, its first degree being conferred only in 1940. There was of course science teaching before that for other faculties.

Our medical degree course has actually had a longer history than seventy years, if we consider the Hong Kong College of Medicine as its forerunner. It was in 1881, one hundred years ago, when Dr William Young from Canada opened the Taipingshan Dispensary for the treatment of the poor Chinese, in association with the London Missionary Society. This eventually led to the formation of the Hong Kong College of Medicine, which in turn led to the establishment of the University of Hong Kong. Being a recognised medical degree, it was very popular among young school leavers in Southeast Asia, and before the war many of the region's doctors received their training in Hong Kong.

Engineering was another course often chosen by students outside Hong Kong. Our degrees in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering were recognised by the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers respectively. All the examination papers in the three engineering departments were sent to London to Assessors who were also examiners in the University of London; and every year after the first final examinations in 1916 a statement was received from the Assessors that certain graduates of Hong Kong had reached the standard that was required for the Honours degrees in the University of London. The external examiners' system today can be considered as a continuation of the pre-war London Assessors scheme in Engineering. The differences are that the assessment was made by London professors only and that no fund was made available for them to visit Hong Kong once every three years.


Academically the University before the war was not research-orientated. It did not have the same sophistication that prevails in present-day first-class universities. Throughout the first thirty years of our existence, there were only two MSc (Eng)'s, three MA's, five MD's, and two MS's. With only this handful of higher degree graduates, the University could be considered as providing only undergraduate teaching in different disciplines. This mission of our University at that time was mainly to teach and to train teachers, doctors and engineers.

The China Link

In our early days the Chinese government, central and provincial, sent students regularly to Hong Kong for university education. The University fulfilled the original vision of providing graduates who would help modernise China with Western knowledge. One of the desires of the founders of the University was that the natural resources of China should be developed for the benefit of the Chinese in particular and humanity in general. It is gratifying to note that many prominent university professors and engineers in China before the war were our graduates. The first chair established in the University was the Taikoo chair of Engineering.

There were also medical students from China who on returning either did private practice or worked for the government. Their number was probably less than those from Malaya and Burma.

On the Arts side, many students sent to Hong Kong by the Chinese government were to be trained as secondary school teachers. These so called "Peking Students" eventually became leaders in the educational field in China. Many, after further postgraduate studies or research, became professors in different universities. Fifty years later, one of the "Peking Students" remarked that the University of Hong Kong gave them a good foundation in English studies and that it surpassed that given by most of the universities in China at that time. This benefited them tremendously in their pursuit of Western knowledge. The main weakness in our curriculum was that not enough subjects were offered owing to a shortage of staff. This was typical of pre-war small universities throughout the world, where only a small number of teachers in each department were considered adequate for a small number of students. When I was a student, in all three engineering departments there was a total of only three professors, two lecturers and three demonstrators! There was, however, intimate contact between staff and students. Though the students were not well informed of many aspects of their chosen fields, the good foundation they received meant they had no great difficulty in picking up whatever knowledge they needed in later years.

Hall Life

Before the war, most of the students lived in halls. Their life centered round the halls which provided them with the requisite opportunities for social intercourse. As the number of students in each hall was fewer than today they got to know each other well. Lasting friendships were formed and minds were broadened by the interchange of views and arguments. Pressure of study was not so strong in those days and students spent most of their leisure hours in a large common room on the ground floor of each hall. Every evening hall residents were gathered near the staircase on the ground floor to answer roll calls before retiring to bed. Luckily this practice is no longer continued today otherwise, in a hall with 200 or 300 students, a good part of an hour would be spent in chaos merely answering roll calls every night.

As a student from China, I was especially excited by the living conditions in the hall then. Single rooms were provided. Compare this with the three to eight students in each room in my old university in Shanghai. Service was excellent. A student could order anything to eat or drink by simply pressing the bell. No wonder the University was known at that time as a place for comparatively well-to-do students. For similar service today a student would probably have to live in the Mandarin Hotel!

The University: Present

The University resumed its activities almost immediately after the cessation of the Second World War. This showed the determination of our government and the public to provide higher education to our youth without any delay. Throughout the world the importance of university education has been recognised since the war, and this explains the rapid growth of university student populations everywhere. This expansion has only happened to our University during the past two decades, rather belatedly, as the University suffered serious physical losses as a consequence of war. In 1946, all our engineering laboratories had been stripped of their experimental instruments and machine sets. We had to start our courses virtually from scratch. In the early days the students even had to carry their own chairs to their lectures. This Loke Yew Hall was reduced to its four bare walls open to the sky. However, this physical desolation had not dampened our ardour for higher education. The first post-war congregation was held on March 22, 1946, in this Hall, when thirty-three candidates received degrees awarded by the Hong Kong University (Medical Degrees) Emergency Committee. Amid the ruins of the Hall, the spirit was high, symbolic of the renewed life which was about to return to the University. If students today could be shown the misery of the war, the absence of any prospects for higher education, and the high spirit of the days when the University reopened even with very poor facilities, they would certainly value the opportunity of learning in the environment that we enjoy now.

The University during the first decade after the war ran in a similar manner to pre-war days. Much effort was spent on renovation and equipping the laboratories. We were fortunate to have our pre-war library books well preserved by Mr K P Chan, lecturer in Chinese translation. This rendered our job in restoring the Library simpler an cheaper.

The biggest changes in this University have taken place during the past two decades, when it has virtually been transformed from an old university to a modern one. The Second World War brought an accelerated development in science and technology, possibly the only good thing that the war brought to mankind, together with of course much of its evils. The University must march with the times. It is no longer possible for a specialised branch of knowledge to be taught by only one professor and one lecturer as in pre-war days. In my own field I have seen new subjects spring up during the past three decades; microwaves, analogue and digital computers, solid state devices, lasers and masers, satellite communication, to mention but a few. How are we to cope with this rapid progress? Fortunately the past decades also saw a great increase in student numbers and this has brought about an increase in staff. New teachers brought with them new expertise and the latest knowledge from advanced countries. The external examiner system enables each department not only to maintain its academic standard but also to avail itself of advice from the overseas examiner. In a discipline where rapid changes take place due to the introduction of new fields, examiners in such fields can be invited every three years. Teachers have been encouraged to take study leave overseas or do research through research grants. Though "publish or perish" has not been applied so rigidly as in some US universities, substantiation of appointment will not be made unless the teacher concerned has shown some ability in research. Such measures were not thought of before the war.

Research and Higher-Degree Studies

The most substantial progress has been in the area of higher-degree research and study, especially from 1960 to date. In 1971, the University introduced master's degrees by coursework in the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences. Later other faculties offered similar degrees by coursework. These degrees are thus operating alongside the higher degrees by research. It is interesting to note that the number of higher degrees conferred has increased from fourteen in 1960 to fifty-nine in 1970, and to 163 in 1980, among which the number of doctorates or higher doctorates is not insignificant. The ratio of higher degrees to first degrees has likewise increased from 5% in 1960 to 7.9% in 1970, and to 14% in 1980. The University has indeed reached a state of maturity, and many graduates have served locally or internationally in distinguished academic or research posts, not to mention the numerous leading positions in our community and government. As Hong Kong's society has increased in sophistication, the University has not lagged behind as an institution of higher learning.

New Teaching Departments

Without any heavy electrical and mechanical plants left and without any substantial industry existing in 1946, only the Civil Engineering degree course was resumed. Added to it in 1951 was Architecture, forming the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. All other faculties carried on as in pre-war days. Industry had, however, gradually entered the Hong Kong economy and degree courses in electrical and mechanical engineering were reintroduced in 1959. As Hong Kong society became more advanced the Faculty of Social Sciences was born and grew rapidly with many new departments and courses being set up in the sixties; such as Management Studies , Statistics, Sociology, Social Work, Political Science, and also Law. In 1973, Industrial Engineering was added to the Engineering Faculty. Dental Studies and Urban Studies have recently been added to our normal academic activities. This University now has all the disciplines of a modern university which Hong Kong needs for its further development. I am sure all of us who knew our University pre-war would be glad to see the transformation that has taken place in recent years.

Students Today

Since our government made a firm commitment in 1969 that no student who had gained admission to the University would be prevented from entering because of financial difficulties, the University has been able to accept students from a wider spectrum of our society. In December 1980, out of our 4,634 undergraduates, 3,001 of them received government grants and loans, ie some 65% received financial aid to enable them to study at the University. This does not include about seventy students receiving other financial aid. This shows that the majority of students come from less well-off families. Many of them are living not only far away from the University campus, some taking more than three to four hours to travel daily, but also have a poor study environment. The need for hall accommodation to provide a good study environment conducive to higher efficiency in learning, is very pressing. Many students also do part-time work to subsidise their university education. It is a pity that the government spends a lot of public funds to educate our students and yet they cannot take full advantage of this offer because of poor family environment for study, or because they need to take on a part-time job. The former can be helped by increasing hall accommodation in the University.

Unfortunately hall residence is no longer compulsory as in pre-war days, nor is this physically possible at present. With the large expansion of the student population in recent years only a small fraction of students, 20% at present, can be admitted to halls. However pressing the need is, to build a new hall takes several years and involves a lot of money too. Hall residence becomes a privilege for those who are accepted to halls. The activities of students are now largely centered on their Union and various student societies, while in pre-war years hall life dominated the scene.

On reflection, I find the students today are comparatively more socially conscious than their pre-war counterparts. This is certainly true in other parts of the world as well. The majority of them are keen to learn even under rather adverse circumstances, a characteristic of their Chinese cultural background.

The University of Hong Kong: Its Future

It is always difficult to forecast the future. I must therefore, Mr Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, beg your indulgence for my audacity in attempting to forecast what our future may be like. In celebrating our seventieth birthday this year we can, however, have confidence that the University will continue to fulfill the mission our society entrusted to it; just as, I believe, we have done with reasonable success in the past. This University has always moved along with our rapidly changing social and economic scenes; from entrepreneurial to industrial, from a quiet, peaceful and easy-going society to a busy, congested city. We should thus be able to cope with the new challenge awaiting us.

Lying before us are formidable problems, both social and economic, which are to some extent not unique to Hong Kong but worldwide. The University will accept a challenge which in olden days, especially before the war, we would not have even thought of. We are facing severe competition and restrictions in our export markets on the one hand, and difficult social and environmental problems arising mainly from over-congestion on the other hand.

To plan for our future university education requires a good knowledge about the future, which can, to a great extent, be only educated guesswork. Some experts in educational futurism can only begin to perceive the depths of their ignorance about the future, and can do no more than watch the direction of current movements turn into trends. Likewise, what we can do is nothing more than to watch the trend Hong Kong is moving into in order to plan for our future education.

Hong Kong was fortunate in the 50s and 60s to enjoy a period of industrial development based on our comparatively cheap and plentiful labour force. We did not have to enter sophisticated scientific and technological fields to sell our manufactured goods overseas. In the 70s this was no longer possible. In this region, our wages became second only to those in Japan and restrictions to our exports posed a threat to our industry. The situation has been well known to all of us. For our survival it will require a joint effort of the government, industry and educational institutions to plan critically for our future. This University has had a long history of engineering education right from the beginning of our existence seventy years ago. We are naturally fully conscious of our responsibility in this respect. Our Departments of Science, Engineering, Economics, Management Studies and others are ready to plan their parts in this endeavour. Today we are living in a highly competitive world; yet our resources are very limited. We cannot afford very sophisticated research and development work, such as the development of very-large-scale integrated circuits, or some other advanced technology relevant to our industry. How to optimise the use of our limited resources in research and development will become an important exercise in which this University, together with other institutions, will and must become increasingly involved. Greater emphasis will have to be laid on studies such as energy, environment, computers and management, in our curriculum.

It can also be envisaged that there will be more frequent revision of our university degree courses in future than there has been in the past. Today we are living in an age of rapid scientific and technological change. No doubt this sort of change will have an immense impact on our future way of life and university education will have to cope with this situation. To acquire a general knowledge is already very time-consuming. Can we afford time to go for specialisation in our undergraduate curriculum? There may be an increasing emphasis upon generalisation rather than specialisation in many areas of science and industrial applications. Specialisation may be left mostly to master's degree programmes or short intensive postgraduate courses. The University of Hong Kong has in the past been mainly concerned with undergraduate teaching. It may well turn out that postgraduate studies and research become a significant component of our educational activities in the next few decades.

The impact of science and technology will be felt in all walks of life. Our future managers and administrators will have to be educated in the sciences and humanities; scientists, pure and applied, will have to be educated in management and the humanities. Our society will be closely knit together, and one cannot simply live in one's own specialised world. Looking at the degree courses offered by universities overseas, we find sociology is often taught in medical schools, subjects such as "The Transition to Industrial Society" in Arts faculties, "Energy and Society" in Social Science courses, arts subjects as electives for science students, and "Technology and Society" papers for engineering students. This University has also introduced similar broad-based subjects in our own curricular. They have to be taught convincingly in order to underline the importance of the knowledge so conveyed, and yet at the same time their introduction to the degree course should not lower its academic standard.

Modern universities have been largely subsidised by public funds. In the past few decades, the ideal of a university, cherished for almost 1,000 years appeared to be fading, to be replaced by the notion of the university as a centre of knowledge mainly to meet current needs of society. It is generally believed that knowledge is power. Instead of being thought of as an autonomous community of masters and scholars pursuing the truth, the university is regarded as the nerve centre of knowledge, dedicated to the national power, prestige and prosperity. Between the two extremes of the old and the new ways of defining the purposes of the existence of university, there should be a middle road approach to this problem so that the university remains a free and responsible centre of higher learning. It will preserve its academic freedom, and at the same time not forget its responsibility to the community that supports it. Students who will one day play an important role in society should, in their undergraduate studies, be made aware of the debt they owe to society, so that they may accept some responsibility for the well-being of its people. This is felt by many university educators, and an element of social studies in professional courses has been introduced as I mentioned previously.

Hong Kong has faced many social problems in recent years, owing partly to our over-congested and difficult living conditions. University education should not seek to produce an elite group whose aim is merely self-advancement. We must be prepared to enter community service whenever opportunities are presented to us. This is more so today than in pre-war days. It is also my conviction that cultural life in Hong Kong should be further promoted to alleviate the tension and busy life of an industrial society. Our youth should be able to spend their leisure hours more profitably. The Hong Kong Arts Centre and Arts Festival are moving in this direction, but our University should, I believe, in the next decades play an important role in enriching the life of Hong Kong people by expanding its Fine Arts and Music Studies.

It is thus not difficult to see that this University will exist as a free and responsible university in Hong Kong. We shall, of course, always be guided by the public through the University Court and Council, while maintaining our academic freedom. Reaching seventy years of age, the University is also old enough to be an experienced and responsible institution of higher learning. Given the resources we shall not disappoint the public in this trust they have put in us. We have in the different stages of our development fulfilled our mission as a University and we shall, I trust, continue to discharge our responsibilities to society in the days to come.

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