A Turning Point


A Turning Point

The crisis-ridden academic year of 2019–20 was the most challenging the University has faced since the Second World War. Both the social unrest in Hong Kong and the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly impacted HKU and our society. I am pleased to say, however, that our response to these challenges has revealed HKU’s strengths – of teamwork, diligence and a commitment to excellence in teaching, research as well as contribution to the wider community and mankind. 

The disruptions had a silver lining. They provided opportunities for innovation and the expansion of online teaching and learning. They also caused the University’s leaders to pause, reflect and think deeply about our future. We are obliged to take HKU to the next level of excellence and to realise our potential to the full by critically reviewing our strengths and weaknesses, and dislodging any lingering complacency. The twin crises have added fuel to our determination to push forward with these plans, which include upgrading our facilities and attracting top-flight scholars from around the world.

Moving Online

The University’s resilience in the face of social unrest and COVID-19 ensured that our core work of teaching and research continued – thanks to the outstanding effort expended by everyone involved, from teachers, deans and department heads to support staff and administrators. An awful lot was demanded of them and they rose quickly and competently to the challenge.

For example, when the social unrest affected campuses in Hong Kong in fall 2019, our senior management team, deans, department heads and staff worked day and night to keep the lines of communication with students open and address matters before they became flashpoints. Students also responded reasonably. As a result, the University emerged relatively unscathed. We continue to value diversity of views and vigorous debate, so long as it is conducted within the law and adheres to the principle of mutual respect and civility.

Part of our response was to close the campus during November and December 2019 to facilitate calm to return. This required a swift move to online teaching and assessment and we managed to complete the semester as scheduled, including creating the HKU Online Examination System in just two weeks. The solutions were not perfect, but they provided a valuable practice run for what was to come later with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just one week into the second semester, face-to-face classes were suspended and would remain so, off and on until September. The lessons we learned during the earlier closure meant that we could quickly adjust and roll. Online teaching and learning at HKU have since improved tremendously, with better infrastructure, training and experience now under our belt. Many teachers have experimented and pushed the boundaries to make the most of the online environment. Multi-channel learning will undoubtedly be a core feature of teaching going forward at HKU.

Back to Campus and Community

Online learning cannot, however, replicate all the benefits of face-to-face teaching and campus life that are such a treasured part of being in university. HKU decided early in the year to work towards making the campus environment safe for everyone to return, with the first priority being classrooms. Our Task Force on Infectious Diseases has toiled away to implement infection control measures around the campus, and helped classes resume rapidly as far as possible (we had two class suspensions in 2020). They also mean we have been able to keep our halls and residences open for students. With these measures, no COVID-19 outbreaks have been linked to our campus.

Importantly, our research could continue unabated. Our laboratories have remained open throughout the year and we have investigated and published as usual. This has been fortunate not only for HKU but the world: our medical scholars have produced world-leading research on the virus and their advice has been sought by local, national and overseas governments, as well as international agencies such as the World Health Organization. Even in the midst of great disruption, HKU has been able to demonstrate scholarly excellence and have a deep impact in society. 

Our impact was felt also in knowledge exchange activities on COVID-19. HKU has been one of the trusted institutions relied upon by the Hong Kong public for information as to how to stay safe, as well as to maintain mental and physical well-being. Our students have assisted primary and secondary school students in their studies during school closures, and the University has launched the HKU COVID Relief Fund to help students and community members in need. 

HKU also wants our fresh graduates to continue to perform well, despite the economic impacts of the pandemic. To help them over this hump, we announced short-term internships for 2020 graduates to gain work experience at HKU. We also offered scholarships if they instead wished to pursue our taught Master’s degree programmes to enhance skills and knowledge in a tough labour market. More than 110 graduates have taken up the latter opportunity.


Professor Zhang interacting with students in the Tam Wing Fan Innovation Wing.

A Stellar Performance

Despite the profound challenges this year, we have delivered magnificent achievements in our academic activities. The most prominent example was our COVID-19 research (detailed in RESEARCH AND INNOVATION), but this was only one highlight in a very busy and fruitful year.

We continued to perform strongly in the Research Grants Council’s competitive funding programmes, receiving HK$212 million (excluding on-costs) for 265 projects under its General Research Fund – significantly more than in 2019 and the highest amongst institutions in Hong Kong. We also led five of the seven major projects awarded in the Theme-based Research Scheme, receiving a total HK$179 million (including on-costs), and participated in a sixth. Some 127 of our scholars were named by Clarivate Analytics as being among the top 1% in their fields in the world in 2020 based on citations by other academics while individual scholars earned various national and international honours. HKU also performed very well in InnoHK, a major, new Hong Kong government funding programme.

Top-performing students continued to choose HKU. We admitted three of the five top scorers of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination, two provincial top scorers in Mainland China’s Gaokao examinations, 16 top scorers in the global International Baccalaureate exams and 24 top scorers in the GCE A-level exams. Many of these high-flyers are non-local students who chose to come to Hong Kong. Altogether, more than 700 students of 38 nationalities from Mainland China and overseas picked HKU.


Professor Zhang delivering a speech at the Inauguration Ceremony for New Students.

Talent Acquisition

The dust has not settled on the turmoil of the past year and challenges remain – the global pandemic, political polarisation in Hong Kong, and uncertain geopolitics which threaten to affect research and recruitment. The implications for the University are clear: we must continue to innovate and stay nimble, and press ahead with our ambitions to advance HKU. Academic excellence is the key to the University’s value to society. Our future depends on it.

HKU has done very well among the best universities in Asia, but we need to engage in deep thinking and reform if we are to be truly world leading. The University is more than a century old and there are areas where we could be more efficient and effective. We need to go beyond our comfort zones and get ahead of the curve to lead change.

To this end, and to inject new energy and continuously enhance standards on campus, we are actively recruiting 100 of the world’s best scholars, at all ranks and fields, through the HKU Global Professoriate Recruitment Campaign. At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to cultivate home-grown talent through recruitment of strong PhD candidates. Fresh voices and ideas will help stimulate everyone in the HKU community to gear their strengths to the maximum. 


The current Pokfield Road site will be redeveloped into a new landmark campus hub with academic, cultural and sports facilities. 

Reinvigorating Facilities

We are also in the process of expanding and upgrading our physical space to accommodate more people and more kinds of research. The Pokfield Campus development received green light in 2020 and will link HKU to Kennedy Town. Work is well underway to expand the Medical Campus on Sassoon Road, while the Tech Landmark, which will focus on interdisciplinary research, is also moving forward. These modern facilities should start to reach completion within the next five years.

One point that must be emphasised in light of political developments, including the new National Security Law, in Hong Kong over the past year is that academic freedom continues to be alive and kicking at HKU. Although the implications of that law to academia remain unclear, we have held workshops led by the Faculty of Law to deepen our understanding on the subject. HKU remains fervently committed to academic freedom, while at the same time acknowledging that we must work within the law. We will continue to explore and discover, all for our academic excellence and contribution to knowledge generation and humanity.

This is how I look at our future: we have to walk with two legs, one to deal with the usual societal challenges, the other to pursue and provide the best education and scholarship to help drive HKU and Hong Kong forward. The circumstances of the past year have brought us to a crossroads, a turning point, and opened up the scope for reform which promises to propel us to new heights. HKU has the capabilities to ramp up its intellectual dynamism to spark new ideas and collaborations across new and emerging fields. The more we succeed, the better we can serve society. 


Professor Xiang Zhang

President and Vice-Chancellor
December 2020 

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