Forcing students to take compulsory courses is not the best way to get them to learn about national security, according to Baptist University’s outgoing president Roland Chin Tai-hong.
Taking an integrated approach might be better, he said, by explaining the concept of national security in the context of culture, history and global affairs through discussion and debate.
“In universities, we don’t do spoon-feeding,” he told the Post in an interview last week. “If we just have students reciting the national security law 1,000 times, it won’t work.”
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Chin, 68, who has been president and vice-chancellor of the publicly funded university since 2015, is retiring at the end of this month.
He said the liberal arts institution in Kowloon Tong, with about 800 full-time staff and more than 10,000 students, was planning a review of its curriculum to find ways to fulfil its responsibilities under the law which Beijing imposed in June.
No deadline had been set yet for the review, as many academic staff were still coping with teaching and research challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in classes moving online.
Under the law, which targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, universities are expected to promote national security education.
Chin said he hoped academics would not self-censor because of the law and would continue to “teach the same way”.
He thought there were a number of ways students could learn about national security not only in Hong Kong today or in politics, but also in culture, history and global affairs.
Students could analyse comparisons between East and West, or the colonial system in Hong Kong and China, and also invite guest speakers to run workshops on specific topics, he said.
Education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who met university heads recently to discuss the implications of the new law for universities, said the bureau did not issue the institutions any directives on the matter.
Chin said the government had given universities “a lot of flexibility” in how they chose to teach national security and meet the requirements of the law.
The easiest way would be to introduce compulsory courses and consider the job done, but Chin had reservations about that approach, saying: “That won’t serve the purpose of education.”
Some local academics have raised concerns that the national security law could restrict academic freedom, with several saying they had stopped recording discussions during lessons to protect the free flow of ideas.
Chin said at Baptist University, he had not noticed the law taking a toll on academic freedom or institutional autonomy, both values guaranteed and protected under the Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution.
He said the university also had no plans to issue guidelines to staff or students over the law, adding that teaching and learning should be conducted “the same way, as long as you don’t violate the law”.
“I hope teachers are not backing down and [avoid] saying what they believe to be right,” he said.
Education officials have said that discussions on independence for Hong Kong should be avoided on campuses, and protests against the law had no place there either.
Chin felt there were grey areas under the law, and legal advice was needed to determine if debating the issue of independence, for example, was a violation.
“If someone opposes the national security law, is it illegal? I don’t know,” he added.
Earlier this month, eight people including fresh graduates at Chinese University were arrested by the Hong Kong Police Force’s national security unit following a politically charged demonstration last month at its Sha Tin campus.
The management of the university called police as about 100 demonstrators gathered. The group went on to chant separatist slogans and display banners calling for Hong Kong’s liberation.
Asked how he would react to a similar incident on his campus, Chin did not comment on Chinese University’s actions, but said he would be inclined to seek legal advice and communicate with the protesters himself.
“I would tell the students: ‘These are your options, and these are the consequences. And you will have to deal with the consequences if you insist [on continuing]’,” he said.
He also said his core principle was clear. “I don’t want the university to be a platform used by any political parties. Students and staff should debate political views and ideologies, but they should not hijack the university platform to advance their political views.”
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