Fung Wai-wah: “It’s more dire than SARS in self-financing institutions”

PTU President Fung Wai-wah is currently a senior lecturer at the School of Continuing and Professional Education (SCOPE) of City University of Hong Kong (CityU). Having taught Social Work in post-secondary institutions for more than 30 years, he notes that the tertiary education sector, self-financing institutions in particular, are confronted a situation direr than SARS in face of coronavirus. Compared with SARS 17 years ago, where self-financing courses were only in the initiation stage, tertiary institutions are much more reliant on this source of income today. At CityU, for instance, nearly half of its income comes from self-financing courses. Fung worries for his colleagues.

Self-Financing Institutions Might Wind Up

When talking about the admission numbers of tertiary institutions this year, Fung says it is “messed up big-time”. As the number of university enrolment drops, self-financing institutions find themselves in rough seas. The epidemic has heavily influenced students’ desire to apply, compounding institutions’ crisis.

“Institutions have been accepting applications since December. January to March should have been the peak, but the figures are far lower than those of last year. Students do not show much desire in applying and I worry that would exacerbate the already dire situation. Enrolment rate is much lower than that of last year. It is not a proportionate decrease. The epidemic keeps institutions from promoting their courses. Info days, seminars, and interviews are all made impossible.”

Courses Severely Impacted by Suspension of Class

The suspension of class disrupts Fung’s work, too. Thankfully he had completed all face-to-face lectures before Chinese New Year, but students’ practicums are forced to suspend. Fung says that, while his workload has been reduced by 80 per cent, he would have to spend much more time catching up once class resumes and contact different social welfare organisations to reorganise practicums for students.

“Suspension severely offsets class. Class suspension during SARS was much shorter and suspension only began after a while. This time, the duration of class suspension is unknown, the arrangement is chaotic, and students do not know if there will be any make-up classes.”

“We can handle practicums of social workers, but practicums that take place in mainland China, such as those for Chinese Medicine students, would be tricky. Some students cannot or do not dare to visit Mainland China, which would delay their practicums for a year and thus lead to deferral of studies.”

On the other hand, self-financing courses are accredited by the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, unlike their publicly-funded counterparts, which are accredited by the universities themselves. Fung worries the significantly shortened class hours during suspension would affect the courses’ recognition. The Council has yet to make a statement.

Responsible Management

In addition to students, Fung is concerned about the welfare of his colleagues. While his salary as a full-time tertiary education lecturer is not affected by enrolment, he worries for “nomad teachers”. Enrolment faces grave difficulties as the epidemic continues. Some students have also requested refunds. Part-time instructors bear the brunt of the crisis as tertiary institutions seek to cut costs.

“If students do get their refunds, institutions’ finances would further suffer. Income from tuition fees would decrease while salary and expenses remain unchanged, resulting in deficits, which is already commonplace amongst self-financing institutions.”

As part of the faculty management, Fung does his utmost to pay teaching staff their full salaries. “We strive to be as earnest as we can. Part-time instructors with contracts are now asked to teach online and paid in full, but I do not think that is feasible for all institutions as some institutions are in stringent financial situation. In addition, not all classes can be conducted online, making it difficult to pay instructors in full and significantly decreasing the income of part-time teachers.”

Difficulties in Online Teaching

Part-time teachers are troubled by potential pay cuts while other teachers must familiarise themselves with online teaching. Fung says the situation is “diverse”.

As part of management, he provides colleagues with comprehensive support. Many colleagues lacked equipment for online teaching in the beginning. “We had to source equipment such as microphones everywhere as they were low in stock. We ended up paying more than a double.” He then increased the budget for equipment.

“Not all tertiary education instructors are used to online teaching. It had always been supplementary and an aid in answering questions. It was some instructors’ first time using software for online teaching and mastery takes time.”

On the other hand, technical support has to be taken into consideration. “IT support is insufficient. Technicians are learning as they go. They have to teach themselves to use the software first before helping teaching staff, which is very time-consuming. Some colleagues had to start from the basics, such as how to add a voice track to PowerPoint. They showed great surprise when they learnt that it was, indeed, possible to play voice tracks in a PowerPoint.”

Fung does his best to assist colleagues, but it is on the government to aid self-financing institutions. “To help self-financing institutions survive, the PTU proposes subsidies so that tuition fees can be reduced and the gap between self-financing institutions and publicly funded institutions can be minimised. It is what the institutions need to survive this crisis.”