Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What does a (Hong Kong) professor do?

Is a university a place to do research? Or a place to educate? Many people will say both.

What is the reality? At least as far as Hong Kong is concerned? It can be much more obvious how a university can build up a reputation by doing good research - hire good researchers, pay them more money, give them good facilities, admit more research students, generate more research papers, ... If a university has the resources (money and determination), it has been shown to be do-able, even in Hong Kong. Perhaps - particularly in Hong Kong, where money speaks louder than anything else.

On the other hand, it is much more difficult and it takes much longer, for a university to build up a reputation for good teaching. It is not always very obvious whether a university is offering quality education. It can also take much longer, perhaps years after the graduates left the university, for the quality of its students to shine through. What is beyond doubt is that it must involve passion and vision.

At the personal, professorial level, the situation is the same. A top level manager of a local university privately admits it is much harder to evaluate teaching performance than research performance. Hence there are more professors who are promoted based on research performance than teaching performance.

The best professors can do both equally well. In fact, at least theoretically, research and teaching complement each other.

In reality, however, many professors can hardly be blamed for focusing more on research than teaching. They are just human beings that respond to economic incentives. By economic, it does not mean just money. It can also be recognition, promotion, longer term employment. OK, eventually it still come back to money.

In a society where students are brought up on more liberal and independent learning approaches, this bias may not matter as much. Students can learn by themselves despite the poor teachers, or teachers that do not care. Good researchers can inspire self-motivated students by example, without having a clue on how to teach.

But in Hong Kong, where students have been thoroughly trained on lecture and examination driven approaches, this bias can, and is having serious consequences.

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