MU Connect issue 6 (page 08 to 09)

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Reminisce, savour, aspire — A quarter-century's journey

Having served as Chairman of the University Council for ten years from 1998 and then as Pro-Chancellor for a further ten years, leading the University forward in leaps and bounds over the past quarter-century, Dr Charles Lee Yeh-kwong passed the baton of Pro-Chancellor to Dr Eddy Fong Ching at the end of October.

The best arrangement of all

Dr Lee walks into the conference hall where he often chairs meetings, displaying a humble and benevolent demeanour and emanating rays of wisdom between his eyebrows. Twenty-five years passed in the blink of an eye. Looking back on his appointment by the Government, Dr Lee smiles and says, “It's said that the then HKSAR Chief Executive, Mr Tung Chee-hwa, initially wanted me to be the Council Chairman of a UGC-funded university. Fortunately, that didn't happen!”

Over the years, Dr Lee has held numerous important public positions in Hong Kong. There was a time when a reporter asked him how he would choose among the various capacities he had served in, including the founding Chairman of the Hong Kong Exchanges, the inaugural Chairman of the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority and a member of the Executive Council. “Without any hesitation, I gave my choice of the 'OUHK'. I share the University's mission, and joining it has been the best arrangement for me.”

Identifying with the mission of education

Dr Lee's personal experience is an important reason for his identification with the University's mission. In the 1950s, there was only one university in Hong Kong, and over 95% of secondary school graduates were unable to attend university. He was one of them. “I understand the feeling of missing out on a university education. Luckily, I was able to study abroad a few years later with the support of my family,” Dr Lee recalls. “The University's mission of Education for All rekindles the hopes of those who aspire to study.”

In response to the Government's call for expanding post-secondary education opportunities in 2000, the University gradually introduced full-time programmes in addition to its distance learning education. “Back then, our decision to follow the Government's policy was a 'great deed' that has nurtured a large number of talents needed by society over the years.”

Leading the way on key decisions

During his leadership at the University for more than two decades, Dr Lee made and witnessed numerous significant decisions. He vividly recounts the intricate process of setting up the Island Learning Centre back in 1999, when the Ho Man Tin campus only had Block A and Block B. Faced with a shortage of classrooms, the University went to great lengths to raise tens of millions of dollars and planned to purchase about 20,000 square feet of office space in the Central-Sheung Wan area to facilitate working adults in their studies.

“We later learnt that, due to fire safety regulations, general office space was not allowed to accommodate classes with several hundred students. Feeling hesitant and distressed, we were informed by friends that there happened to be a liquidation sale of a restaurant in the Shun Tak Centre in Sheung Wan. The property had built-in staircases, elevators and even escalators, meeting the fire safety regulations for more than a thousand students.” Unfortunately, the property was over 30,000 square feet and its value far exceeded the University's affordable budget. The only way to make it happen was to seek a loan from bank.

Blessings for the University

”At that time, Mr Li Ka-shing personally called me.” It turned out that the Shun Tak Centre was built by Mr Li's company, and through Dr Lee he learnt about the University's plan and difficulties. Back then, his company also subsidised its employees to study at the University. “He expressed a strong endorsement of the concept of open education and lifelong learning, and agreed that the property was the most suitable location. He told me, 'No need to borrow from banks. I will donate the shortfall.'”

The University received a donation of HK$44 million from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, which was at that time the largest individual donation it had ever received. In gratitude, the University later named the School of Professional and Continuing Education after Mr Li. “It is our good fortune that, in times of difficulty, kind-hearted individuals come forward to lend a helping hand and make good things happen.”

Dr Lee adds that by 2012, the Sheung Wan property had appreciated sevenfold. The then Council Chairman Dr Eddy Fong, along with the University management, decided to sell the property. With the assistance of the then Treasurer Mr Wong Yick-kam, the University used the sale proceeds to acquire a property of over 120,000 square feet in the Kowloon Trade Centre in Kwai Hing, significantly increasing the available space and development opportunities for the University. “They seized the best opportunity, making a very wise decision.”

Political and business connections facilitate soaring development

Dr Lee has a wide network of friends in the political and business sectors, bringing support and assistance from many philanthropic individuals to the University. He elaborates on how, in order to provide targeted assistance to the University's development, he asked the management to conduct a detailed analysis of students' background information. They then summarised a typical student profile at the University back then: working adults, 35 years old, married with one child, responsible for their own tuition fees and mostly using the University's E-Library from 10 pm to 1 am.

“Whenever I mentioned to my friends the heavy life burden of our students and how they burnt the midnight oil to study, donations poured in.” Through his connections, the University received significant donations from The Hong Kong Jockey Club, Mr Cheng Yu-tung, Mr Lee Shau-kee, the Kwok's family and others, which largely supported the University's rapid development and continual campus expansion. Subsequently, new campuses and buildings were named after these generous philanthropists.

Getting Government funding

Witnessing the development of the University during its second decade, Dr Lee sighs about the challenges of running a university without subsidies and the difficulty of maintaining financial balance. “While UGC-funded universities receive Government funding for their recurrent expenditure, self-financed institutions do not receive any at all. I believe such resource allocation is highly unreasonable.” He expressed his concerns to Mr Michael Suen, the then Secretary for Education, but unfortunately, the policy had already been set and was difficult to change. After rounds of lobbying, he successfully persuaded Mr Suen to include the University in the Matching Grant Scheme in 2008, enabling the University to receive financial assistance from the Government in a different form.

Unique talents of successive Presidents

During his tenure as Council Chairman, Dr Lee forged a close partnership with Presidents Prof. Tam Sheung-wai and Prof. John Leong Chi-yan. “Faced with the challenge of the University's transition from government-funded to self-financing, Prof. Tam remained committed to developing new programmes, laying a solid foundation for the University. Prof. Leong, as a renowned orthopaedic surgeon, led the University's development in nursing and healthcare to flourish, benefiting society at the same time.” Dr Lee later served as Pro-Chancellor and saw Presidents Prof. Yuk-shan Wong and Prof. Paul Lam Kwan-sing take the University to new heights, praising them as outstanding and all-round leaders.

A fond farewell

Stepping down from his leadership position, Dr Lee will be less directly involved in the affairs of the University, but will continue to contribute his wisdom and experience to its development through various roles. As parting words, Dr Lee urges students to broaden their horizons and engage with different cultures to develop a comprehensive mindset, which is essential in a rapidly changing world. Looking to the future, Dr Lee hopes that the University can maintain its self-financing status and continue its autonomous development. Simultaneously, he emphasises the importance of staying closely attuned to societal needs and providing the best education for aspiring students.