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Live and learn

September 2017

University professors today are having to prove that there are some things that Google can’t teach. Andy S.C. Lee, Vice President (Administration) and Secretary at Hong Kong Baptist University, tells Jemelyn Yadao that the challenge for higher education institutions in a fast changing world is not to educate, but to turn students into active learners

Photography by Juliet Shayne Lui


Across the sprawling campus, one building at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) stands out. The 13-storey Academic and Administration Building features “boxes” extruding from its exterior, embodying freedom of thoughts and ideas – something that today’s universities should cultivate, says Andy Lee.

“Higher education institutions are now experiencing a social change where we are no longer educating people to acquire knowledge and skills. We are actually trying to facilitate them to learn,” clarifies Lee, Vice- President (Administration) and Secretary at HKBU, one of the city’s top universities, and a past president of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.

The proliferation of readily accessible information on the Internet poses a huge challenge for the higher education sector. “You now have to teach students how to learn something that is not ‘Google-able,’ to think outside the box, to think of something that is not there already,” says Lee. Beyond the lecture hall, universities also have a responsibility to teach students valuable life lessons, he adds. “University has to prepare students for a lot of personal challenges, such as career changes or changes to how they live.”

Teachers, therefore, are moving away from traditional teaching methods. “A teacher is no longer just a person who transfers knowledge to students. I think they should be facilitators for students to learn by asking questions that will make them think in different ways, or think about concepts that have not been described or explained in literature. For example, how ideas relate to unrelated areas. How does a certain idea connect with, for example, visual arts or biology?”

The contemporary Academic and Administration Building is also symbolic of Hong Kong’s recent academic reform: firstly in 2009, which changed the undergraduate programme to four years from three, and secondly in 2012 secondary education was decreased from seven years to six. “That building was constructed for that purpose. We had to expand the space to cater for more students,” says Lee.

“No longer do you need to spend three to four years gaining that knowledge. People can obtain these skills in half a year with the Internet.”

Lee believes the move to an American-style four-year degree was justifiable. “The English system is three years, the Scottish system is four years, so there are pros and cons. Personally, I think the academic reform was the right direction. If you look at it from the perspective of the education of a young person, a four-year programme gives us more time to teach and develop a person by having him or her spend more time in university than in secondary school. But society has to invest more resources in this.”

In and out

The demands of an increasingly global workplace outside the university gate are another challenge. To address this, the university wants to send all of its students abroad during their degrees, says Lee. “The number of students taking part in our exchange programme has been increasing over the years, but it is not at the level we want. We want everyone to be out. They don’t have to be studying, they can work, or they can do voluntary work.”

In a bid to add a greater international dimension to the university experience, HKBU has a five-year plan to boost international student enrolments. “This is really important,” says Lee. “The more international a campus is, the more interaction between different cultures and different perspectives can take place within the campus. It’s about giving our own students the opportunity to be exposed to different parts of the world. There might be students from South America, Africa, or Belt and Road countries coming to our university for exchange, and they may think differently from our students about certain issues.”

Staying on the topic of Belt and Road, Lee believes in the initiative’s potential to shape the future of some of Hong Kong’s younger generation. “In the next several years, these countries are going to prosper because of the initiative. I think a lot of students here will be able to see good career prospects there.”

Solving the accounting problem

Lee takes an optimistic stance on the career chances of Hong Kong’s young people, and dismisses media reports of the city’s university graduates facing bleak prospects and stagnant wages. “The prospects of graduates should not be defined by their salaries in the early stages of their career. Life is a long process,” says Lee. “In fact, when I see students after a few years, some of them have progressed a lot. Some run their own businesses; some of them have become CEOs.”

He alerts students, however, of the careers that are nonexistent today but that will exist in future, and which they will need to be equipped for. “Ten years ago, people never imagined there would be a career in app design. There will be new careers open because of advances in technology, and some positions will no longer be available,” he says. “Young people have more opportunities if they are creative enough.”

That need for creativity extends to accounting education. “The problem of education for accountants is that it is primarily skills and knowledge-based. No longer do you need to spend three to four years gaining that knowledge. People can obtain these skills in half a year with the Internet,” says Lee.

The most important thing, he adds, is preparing accounting students for the future with a strategic-thinking mindset, and the ability to solve problems beyond those related to the profession. “Get them to write a good film script – that may relate to how they could solve a problem. Get them to present or summarize a complex idea within three minutes,” he says. “Instead of always referring back to the accounting standards, how can they explain to someone in layman terms why a company is suffering losses? If it’s because of hedging, explain that in simple terms, and explain how to resolve the problem.

“The competition for talent is very high. If an accountant can solve problems, communicate well, and think strategically, they can be anywhere.”

Plans that work

Lee was appointed Vice-President of the university in 2005, at a time when the city’s higher education was facing financial curbs. The 2003 SARS epidemic caused widespread economic losses, while the government budget in 2004-05 cut the amount of funding for tertiary institutions, remembers Lee. “Nowadays, you could never imagine that something like that would happen.”

He understood constraints well, having served as Council member of the university since 1996. When the Vice-President role opened up, Lee saw it as an opportunity to oversee the development of the university both through strategic planning and implementation.

As well as a member of senior management, responsible for long-range planning in human resources management, financial management, general administration and estate management of the university, Lee remains a HKBU Council member. “Councils of universities operate like this: you have lay members, appointed by the government, and internal members,” explains Lee.

When helping HKBU formulate strategies, Lee looks at three levels: The macro-level, operational level, and then the day-to-day operation. “One of our new strategic directions is to recruit a larger number of faculty members, so that’s the strategic level. At a more operational level, I have to help the university formulate the recruitment plan. And on the day-to-day level, I have to focus on how to integrate the new faculty members with the existing ones.”

Lee describes the change as “Before, I was looking at HKBU from a helicopter, now I’m the pilot and I’m also the person working on ground level. The good thing about this is that the strategic thinking and actions of HKBU can be more effectively formulated with the perspective of how they can actually be implemented.”


From private to public

HKBU’s School of Business comprises various departments, including the department of accountancy and law and, like the rest of the university, prides itself in offering all-rounded “whole person education” to its undergraduate and postgraduate students. This education ethos is what persuaded Lee to join the institution. “I was very impressed by HKBU being a university in Hong Kong that had a heart for its students. It cared not only about students’ learning but also their personal development,” he says.

Lee himself studied accounting for a year at Hong Kong Polytechnic (before it gained full university status and became The Hong Kong Polytechnic University). He then studied international business at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and completed the accounting qualification exams in free time during his study at CUHK.

Upon graduation, he worked in the tax department at the now-defunct Arthur Andersen. After a stint at Ernst and Whinney (now EY), he worked for a manufacturing company in Hong Kong, then moved to Australia where he worked for a trading company, before rejoining Ernst and Whinney through its Melbourne office. He returned to Hong Kong after four years, joining a logistics company and then a shipping company.

“My generation thinks that we know a lot but the younger generation in some areas know more than us because they are used to acquiring knowledge very quickly.”

All those years of experience accumulated within the private sector triggered Lee to try something different, and so he joined the Hospital Authority in 1991 as Deputy Director (Finance), in charge of its finance function and multi-billion budget. “The reason why I joined the public sector was I thought I could achieve two things at the same time: one was career development, and the other was I could contribute to the community. It is a very large organization managing all the public hospitals in Hong Kong and at that time, the first phase of Hospital Authority’s development was taking place. The services improved a lot, and the scope of services expanded.”

After 11 years at Hospital Authority, he joined the Urban Renewal Authority. “At that time, my job portfolio expanded into other aspects covering strategic planning, human resources, facilities management and IT.”

One unforgettable lesson that his career so far has taught him is to be a lifetime learner. “The world is constantly changing. Always learn from the mistakes that one makes, and the good things that one achieves.”

Through interacting with young people on campus on a regular basis, Lee is continuously exposed to ideas that would never cross his mind. “My generation thinks that we know a lot but the younger generation in some areas know more than us because they are used to acquiring knowledge very quickly,” says Lee. “For example, I promote environmental sustainability at the university as part of my job, and the students came up with a lot of good ideas for environmental protection. For example, they initiated action to get rid of all disposable plastic bottles on campus within a year. I am convinced that this is a very good move, and it’s being implemented.” ◆

In 1956, Hong Kong Baptist College was founded by the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong as a post-secondary college. In 1983, it became a fully-funded public tertiary institution, and was renamed Hong Kong Baptist University after gaining university status in 1994.