Chancellor of Oxford and last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, has faced criticism from the Hong Kong Education Bureau after he claimed that universities in China and Hong Kong are facing threats to free speech and autonomy from the government, in an article published in Project Syndicate.
Patten claimed that he tried to change the system in Hong Kong whereby the Governor was the Chancellor for all government-funded universities, but “the universities would not allow [me] to resign gracefully.” Student unions in Hong Kong are currently protesting against this practice.
The Education Bureau, however, said in a statement, “The current practice of the Chief Executive being the Chancellor of the governmentfunded universities precisely stems from the then Governor Patten’s decision.”
They also claimed that Patten himself approved of the system and chose not to revise it during his tenure as Governor, nor when Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. The Bureau further stated that Patten “was acting in complete ignorance of the facts.”
While Patten expressed happiness at the Education Bureau’s statement that faculty selection is a part of the academic freedom and institutional autonomy, he nonetheless hit back, telling Ming Pao that the Bureau’s statement, “Must have been the thinking of the chief executive [Leung Chun-ying], but the chief executive is mistaken.”
Patten claimed in his original article, “Because students strongly supported the pro-democracy protests in 2014,” which were against proposed Hong Kong electoral reform, Chinese authorities believed that “the universities where they study should be brought to heel.”
This too was refuted by the Education Bureau, who responded, “Such a claim is totally groundless and a sheer fabrication and the HKSAR Government expresses deep regret.”
Professor Peter Mathieson, President and Vice- Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, was also quoted by the Education Bureau, pointing out that the terms “academic freedom” and “institutional autonomy” are not synonymous and so should not be used interchangeably. He was further quoted as saying that most educational institutions lack full institutional autonomy.
Nathan Chan, a law student at Oriel from Hong Kong, told Cherwell, “First and foremost, I am in agreement with what Chris Patten has said with regards to the erosion of autonomy and free speech in universities in Hong Kong.
“As of the present, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is traditionally appointed as the chancellor of all government-funded universities. This has not an issue of much concern for long, but this no longer was the case after the Umbrella Revolution, where the supporters of the pro-democracy movement were predominantly university students.”