The Australians lining up for Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Date: December 4 2016
It's been called a "miracle" university, founded just 25 years ago and now ranked in the world's Top 50. How did the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology do it?
"We credit feng shui," jokes the university's president, Professor Tony Chan.
He's talking about the favourable energy flows the ancient Chinese art of feng shui would attribute to HKUST's spectacular location, on a mountainside overlooking the bay half an hour out of Hong Kong's CBD.
As global competition for the best STEM students and the new generation of tech entrepreneurs heats up, HKUST has Australian talent firmly in its sights.
This week, Professor Chan visited five of Australia's top universities including Sydney and UNSW, seeking formal partnerships and exchange programs. He's hoping to directly recruit Australian high school talent too.
"We would love to have more Australian students apply – we have quite a number from Europe, especially Sweden."
This year HKUST was ranked the world's 49th best university in the Times Higher Ed list, and 36th in the QS list – in Australia just the University of Melbourne and ANU are ranked higher in both lists.
Professor Chan says there is a range of reasons the young university which focuses just on science, engineering and business is doing so well.
It has a determinedly international outlook, teaching in English, focusing intently on research and PhD programs, and has adopted a core curriculum requirement so all first year undergraduate students must take a balanced range of subjects before they commit to a discipline.
"If you're an engineering student, you have to study something in arts and humanities," Professor Chan explains. "If you are a business student you have to study something in science and technology, and everyone has to learn something about language and communication, in English and Chinese.
"We're trying to wean the students away from looking at the university as purely vocational training."
Its proximity to China during the mainland's two-decade period of stratospheric growth has been a major boon. International students and academics who want to live in Asia but work in English have flocked to the campus.
"The rise of the Chinese economy [was important] but we have a kind of ethos, a kind of culture, other people say we're a miracle university," Professor Chan says. "Somehow we had the right vision at the right time and the right place. If you were starting from zero now, there's no guarantee it would work."
The university is publicly funded by the Hong Kong government and Professor Chan says there has never been any issue of academic interference from Beijing, due to Hong Kong's one country-two systems formulation.
Brisbane-educated Australian student Wei Yang Tai is in his third year in electronic and computer engineering at HKUST.
He says initially he felt strong culture shock, because the campus environment was so competitive compared to his Queensland high school, with students working ferociously from day one for internships, for example.
But he has adjusted, and now enjoys the rivalry.
"The downside of having a higher education in Australia is that it lacks an international and competitive atmosphere," he said.
UNSW student Michael Tong is from Melbourne originally, now on exchange in the electrical engineering faculty at HKUST.
He came to have a base to explore Asia from, "also to explore a different cultural experience." He joined the rowing team, and stayed for the ocean view. "Being greeted by the sea view every morning is something I still cannot get used to."
Dr Matthew McKay, originally from Meningie, a small town in South Australia, did his PhD at Sydney University in signal processing and wireless communications, and worked briefly at CSIRO before moving to work at HKUST nine years ago.
He said the university's strength lies in its support for research and innovation.
"One similar aspect regarding Sydney uni and HKUST is that they are both world-class universities with excellent students and top-notch faculty.
"[But] there appears to be comparatively more funding opportunities in Hong Kong for supporting fundamental and applied scientific research …
"Engagement with ambitious projects at the interface of multiple traditional disciplines is something that the administration at HKUST actively promotes and encourages."