Does The American Fulbright Program Have Too Much Control Over Hong Kong Universities?

By Raphael Blet

HONG KONG- While primary and secondary schools are under the Education Bureau’s (EDB) authority, tertiary institutions are autonomously operated.

Despite being detached from the government’s authority, higher institutions are publicly funded and validated by the University Grants Committee (UGC).

Following the education reforms in 2012, universities around the territory went through major changes given that the previous three years curriculum was changed to a four years one.

In order to renew their structure, some universities partnered with the Fulbright Program so as to implement the general education reform.

Many academics and students are opposed to this system as they say it deviates them from their fields of research.

According to The Standard, Victor Sit Fung-shuen — who in 2012 was heading the Advanced Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) — was removed from office after the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) issued a statement in which it accused Mr. Sit of providing ‘irresponsible and fictitious’ claims in his publication.

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Mr. Sit claimed that the Fulbright Scholar Program, which he referred to as the ‘American fund’ was ‘directing the setting up of general education programs’.

The panel handling the case stated that Fulbright was instead providing ‘support and advice’ to universities.

Despite hitting back, Mr. Sit’s Blue Book of Hong Kong was called back and the ‘falsified information’ amended.

The allegations made in the publication were considered as academic misconduct mainly because Mr. Sit did not provide any evidence supporting his claims.

Furthermore, he was believed to have ignored the numerous warnings from the university which offered him the ‘opportunity’ to correct his ‘mistakes’.

Mr. Sit’s acquaintances were only to give his claims even less credibility due to their political background, thus justifying the board’s decision to dismiss him for harming the university’s integrity.

This issue was controversial as the university found itself in a complicated position after Mr. Sit claimed that he was victim of ‘literary persecution’.

Nevertheless, the panel decided to revoke Mr. Sit’s contract given the result of the report.

How can a qualified academic make such false claims if they were all to be wrong? Were those allegations only unfair, biased and politically motivated? What role does Fulbright (that he refers as the ‘American fund’) truly plays in Hong Kong?

The Fulbright Program was named after the US Senator J. William Fulbright and established in 1946.

This program is sponsored by the US Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, meaning that it is a governmental organization. According to the US Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, Fulbright is an exchange program aimed at ‘increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries’.

It offers both students and scholars exchange and scholarship opportunities in different countries while non-Americans are also given the same possibility.

As previously mentioned, Fulbright also acts as an adviser especially in Hong Kong where it has an important role in setting the general education curricula.

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In addition, Fulbright is locally represented by the Hong Kong America Centre (HKAC) which is based at CUHK.

It is reasonable to claim that those labelling themselves as ‘advisers’ will at one point occupy a directorial position and therefore ‘direct the setting up of the general education curricula’.

HKBU is a good example. Professor A. Reza Hoshmand, who is now the Director of General Education arrived in 2008 as a Fulbright scholar, in other words as an ‘adviser’.

Now — in addition to being an adviser — Prof. Hoshmand has a managerial role.

In numerous journals and other reports from CUHK and HKEC, the term ‘reward’ is mentioned: ‘Institutions will provide rewards for faculty who are effective teachers in general education, ideally by embracing what one called “a broader definition of scholarship.”

If rewards are translated into scholarships, Mr. Sit’s claims of an external funding are justified.

In her report, Mixed Marriages and the Fulbright Hong Kong General Education Program, HKEC’s program Director Ms. Ginny Tam gives an important number of elements that would be in favor of Mr. Sit claims.

Here are a few of them:
‘Faculty resistance and apathy were evident’ (Page 1): The term ‘resistance’ is defensive and would let us believe that the ‘advisers’ did have an executive function.

‘This outside presence is very important especially in the early years because they acted as stimulants and catalysts’ (Page 1)

‘This tone of aversion to America originated from the interpretation of the function of the Program as a kind of U.S. interference, with America presuming that it has been sending experts in the role of consultants to help Hong Kong to build its own GE. Not few local colleagues found the idea of the Program patronizing, hence their sentiment, annoyance.’ (Page 3).

There seems to be sufficient evidence to accept the claims made by Mr. Sit.

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It is true to say that external organizations such as Fulbright and HKAC are indirectly controlling some universities.

As proven by those documents, there has been an undeniable pressure on academics as well as a strong opposition from local scholars.

Yet, it is still impossible to officially claim that there is an external funding but the probabilities of an indirect funding are high. In any case, this reform has been truly profitable to the Fulbright Program.

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Cover Photo Credit: Gonzalo Pineda Zuniga/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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