OPINION – Higher Education in Macau: waxing or waning?

Macau Business | February 2021

Forward planning is laudable and applaudable.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

In September 2020 we had Macau’s ambitious Urban Master Plan. In November we had an inspired, sincere, impressive, masterly policy address from the Chief Executive, matched by a clarity of vision and action for the social good and benefit of Macau.

In October 2020, we had the announcement of the now imminent merger of the Higher Education Bureau (DSES) and the Department of Education and Youth Affairs (DSEJ), which, depending on whom you talk to, heralds interesting prospects, challenges, delights, uncertainties, worries and disappointments for Macau’s higher education (HE).

The DSES had taken many steps forward under its former Director, under whose watch and outstanding stewardship many long overdue improvements to HE in Macau were installed. We had the major new HE law (the first for nearly two decades), introducing an embryonic quality assurance system, the rationalization of many regulatory procedures, and the elevation of HE in Macau. Bravo.

Then, in the last days of 2020, we had the launch of a framework for the mid- and long-term development of Macau’s HE. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a vision for the next decade of HE in Macau. On the other hand, perhaps unkindly, it can be seen as the last gasp, a closing-down sale of the DSES before the merger.

The goals of the framework are reportedly to develop Macau into a platform for ‘excellent talented human resources’, for leading academic research and for developing Macau. Delightful. ‘Motherhood and apple pie’: a quintessentially comforting set of platitudes with which one could hardly disagree but which, actually, don’t say much: ruling nothing in and almost nothing out. As the American educationist, Ed Hirsch, remarked many years ago in his address to the California State Board of Education: ‘experts [in educational research] have advocated almost every conceivable practice short of inflicting permanent bodily harm’. The framework is high on the feel good factor, but really, what else?

The launch of the framework indicated that it would have eight ‘measures’: perfecting the education mechanism; expanding the scale of the number of students; promoting the sharing of resources among schools; protecting continuous improvement in higher education; training students’ comprehensive development; enhancing school staff’s proficiencies; promoting research development; and encouraging regional cooperation. Worthiness incarnate.

However, in good conscience, I struggle to understand what these mean, what are the intended, concrete, outcomes of these, and the success criteria and indicators to be used. Who will be accountable here, and for what, and what are the leadership and management responsibilities and implications of the framework? What measures will be used to monitor and judge performance, how will achievement of these be operationalized and evaluated, and what happens if achievement is poor?

Of course, this is a framework, not a plan; hence, the lack of SMART or outcome oriented objectives might be excused. But, like so many frameworks and plans in Macau, it risks quietly evaporating into the ether, leaving its authors basking in the warmth of having done what they were required to do, and the framework having no effect for which they could be held accountable: a weak contribution to ‘perfecting the education mechanism’. Tried hard; could do better.

The only discernible outcomes were to have 50,000 HE students in Macau and, for international students whose presence is sought, to exempt them from patriotic education. Further, according to the reported statement from the acting Head of the DSES, ‘the government will not impose any restrictions to suppress academic freedom’. ‘What does this actually mean?’ I asked myself. Back came the answer: ‘Discussing inappropriate topics – not necessarily political ones – under an inappropriate situation or discussing topics that makes the students [uncomfortable] are different from academic freedom’. So, now you know; opacity rules.

I long for the day when a plan or framework in Macau makes it clear what is required, what will actually, concretely happen, who will do what and by when, how the implementation of the plan or framework will be led, coordinated and managed, what concrete interventions it will bring, who will be held accountable for what in terms of its achievement, and with what incentives and sanctions. It’s good to daydream, though.