There is something puzzling me about the University scene in Hong Kong right now. A scenario that I have seen in countries elsewhere, but it raises serious questions for the future of our students.
We currently have an associate professor of law at Hong Kong University, Mr Benny Tai, who is the leader of the Occupy Central movement. And for those who don’t know, this is a civil disobedience movement geared up to protest if the Beijing Government did not agree to the implementation of direct elections for the city’s “mayor” or Chief Executive by 2017. They didn't, so the movement has been protesting.
I have never questioned the right of people to express their own opinions, and this “protest” therefore is within Mr. Tai’s “rights”. I may not agree with the methods used by the protesters, but that’s a discussion for another day.
My more specific question however relates to Mr. Tai’s students who will be hoping to pass their exams at some stage in the future, and I wonder what will happen to those who express a different view to that held by Mr. Tai. In other words, if he is given responsibility for assessing their views on certain legal issues in relation to their course work, how can they be sure that they will not be penalised when those papers come to be marked if they have not embraced Mr. Tai's own views?
Let me be very clear, I am not questioning the assistant professor’s integrity or his beliefs. However, students lack experience, they have a tendency to view the world differently, and may be somewhat naive in their thinking. They embrace "radical" movements as a way of flexing their developing muscles. Will his students therefore think they must reflect the views of their professor if they are to stand a chance of getting appropriate passing marks?
I am sure the University Vice Chancellor and the Governing body of HKU will have considered this matter, but I do not recall having yet seen any definitive statement that provides for a “second opinion” on Professor Tai’s judgement, and I think this is unsatisfactory.
I will be told I am sure, that academia is above all of that and that I should stick to business issues. But the parallels here on an issue such as this with the business world are fascinating. To ensure good (better) behaviour in companies of all sorts, not just financial services, having a "risk" committee is now essential and as Chairman of a couple of such committees, there would be red flashing lights all over this state of affairs.
I am aware of incidents in other countries where an individual within the academic body has imposed their own beliefs on those of the student body and marked people down accordingly if they did not follow those personal beliefs. I am also aware of directives being given to one University – not in Hong Kong – where a Professor was “leant upon” to reduce his passing mark for a First Class honours degree to allow one or two “well-connected” students who would otherwise not have made it, receive such degrees. As you might expect, the Professor concerned resigned rather than accede to the request – but the University soon found a replacement Professor who was more compliant.
Taking this to another level down, there is evidence to suggest that teaching at many madrassas follow a pattern where children are “brainwashed” by their teachers beyond the point of being able to think for themselves, and then end up us jihadists fighting for the likes of the brutal IS. In other words they hang on to every word of their teachers and are influenced by that teacher's thinking - even if the school itself overall does not set out to turn out classrooms full of wannabe terrorists.
But that is more extreme than the theme of this Blog, so let’s return for a moment to Mr. Tai – and quite possibly others like him.
As I said before, I have no problem with concerned citizens who want to express their own thought-through point of view. But as an influencer of young views can our students be absolutely certain that they have passed their exams because they have followed the prescribed course and done so in a thorough manner, rather than having to toe a line set by their teacher?
All of which reminds me of a story I was told by a friend a few days ago about the seven year old girl who went to her Mother and said “When I grow up I want to be a man”, to which her Mother simply said “You can’t do both dear!”
I think that our academics need to consider the choices they are making – do they want to teach a syllabus to their students by which those students can be assessed fairly, or do they want to impose their views on the students, with pass marks only being obtained if the students accepts the Professor’s views? You can’t do both.
And even if you think you can fairly do both, then I suggest there still needs to be - for the "safety" of everyone - a control against perceived even if not actual bias.