Special Report – “Higher education in Macau has developed fast with very good government funding”

Interview with the city’s most veteran university professor 

MB March 2021 Special Report | 40 years of (modern) tertiary education

Macau-born Iu Vai Pan was Rector of the University of Macau for 9 years (1999-2008) and currently serves as College Master of Stanley Ho East Asia College (SHEAC) at UM, where he continues to teach at the Faculty of Science and Technology. Professor Iu first joined UM (then as University of East Asia) in 1988, making him the most veteran university lecturer still in office.   

You studied in Hong Kong, including your doctorate, and two years later you appear as Lecturer at University of East Asia. How did Macau and the University of East Asia come into your life? 

Iu Vai Pan – Actually, I was born and raised in Macau. After finishing my secondary education at the Anglican Choi Ko Middle School in 1975, I went to Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University) and studied civil engineering. Then I went to the University of Southampton in the UK and studied for my Master of Science degree in structural engineering. Then I went back to Hong Kong and entered the University of Hong Kong for my PhD in civil engineering. (…) During that year [1988], I heard that the University of East Asia had a plan to create a Faculty of Science and Technology offering engineering programmes, including civil engineering. I considered it was time for me to return [after Canada, United Kingdom and Hong Kong] and contribute to the new programmes. I saw an advertisement recruiting a lecturer for the Polytechnic College of University of East Asia to teach in the diploma programme in computer studies. As I had very good knowledge and experience in computing and mathematics in my study and research, I applied for the post as a first step and hoped to transfer to the new programme in civil engineering. Because of my background, the vice-rector at that time invited me to join the installation committee for the civil engineering programme. Then, after one year teaching in the Polytechnic College of UEA, I transferred to the newly established Faculty of Science and Technology in 1989 and started teaching in the civil engineering programme. 

What was the University of East Asia like at that time? What are your main memories (facilities, faculty, students, etc.)? 

I.V.P.– As I had studied and worked in four universities, I felt at home with the University of East Asia despite its small campus. As it stood on top a small hill, one can always enjoy good views towards Taipa and the Macau peninsula. There is a long staircase leading from the lower level to the university, which provides a beautiful sunset view when standing at the top of the staircase and walking down after work. We had quite an international mix of academic colleagues from different parts of the world. As the University developed very fast after the signing of Joint Declaration of China and Portugal, there were constantly new constructions to cope with the development, such as the New Building (for Faculty of Science and Technology) with laboratory facilities, later the Luso Building (main for Faculty of Business and Administration), Administration Building, International Library (new library), Sport Complex, Stanley Ho Building (mainly for Faculty of Law), Jubilee Building (for Faculty of Education), Research Building and Academic Building. Actually, we did have classrooms converted from cargo containers. As the university was smaller and many buildings interconnected, the whole environment was cosy, and colleagues were very close to each other. In my first 5-6 years in the Faculty of Science and Technology, I taught many different courses. I was very busy and at the same time, I, as coordinator for the civil engineering programme, engaged in recruiting new academic staff, technicians for laboratories, purchasing laboratory equipment and “fighting” for and creating space to build the necessary laboratories for civil engineering and other engineering programmes. The student size was very smaller in the beginning, and it was an ideal size to teach effectively. As I taught the first batch of civil engineering students for four years, we are very close, and several of them are now my colleagues. 

“As I had studied and worked in four universities, I felt at home with the University of East Asia despite its small campus”

1988 was a year of transition from the private owners to the Government of Macau (UEA to UM); how did you feel about the change?

I.V.P.– As I mentioned above, there was fast development in infrastructures. The original programmes of UEA were in the model of the British three-year Honours degree programmes, which are more compatible with the secondary school system in Hong Kong as UEA admitted form 7 graduates. Hence, the University had more Hong Kong students (around 60 per cent) than Macau students before 1988. The major academic transition and development was admitting form 6 graduates; existing three-year degree programmes changed gradually to four-year degree programmes, creating a law programme which became Faculty of Law, Faculty of Science and Technology offering engineering programmes and Faculty of Education. Then the University was endowed with the mission to train Macau people for the development of Macau. 

“I like teaching and I may continue after my retirement age of 65. Yes, I keep the same joy”

It is obvious that at the level of higher education, a lot has changed in Macau in these four decades. What’s your opinion? Is higher education in Macau at a good time? 

I.V.P.– Yes, the higher education in Macau has been developed fast with very good government funding. Yes, higher education in Macau is at a good time, as most higher education institutions attained maturity through years. 

One of the sensitive topics, but (I think you will agree) an inalienable part of being a university professor, is academic freedom. How do you rate this topic, based on your experience in Macau? 

I.V.P.– Academic freedom is a sensitive and tricky topic. Sometimes mentioning academic freedom is confusing, as we need to define the context of academic freedom. Academic work comprised of teaching and research. University professors teach according to the curriculum/content stipulated for a particular course, and they cannot change the content arbitrarily, as it is non-professional. Research relies on funding support, which can be limited or restricted or prioritized. As an engineering professor, I do not see any real academic freedom issues. As I said, the academic freedom issue is tricky.

Is having been Rector of the University of Macau the best memory you have from these three decades? 

I.V.P.– Being able to provide more and better conditions for qualified local students in terms of affordable tuition, more disciplines to choose from, higher calibre teaching team, more exchange opportunities;(b) being able to raise the level the university to the international standard.

Do you intend to continue teaching? Until when? Do you keep the same joy as before? 

I.V.P.– I like teaching and I may continue after my retirement age of 65. Yes, I keep the same joy. I think I am the only rector who maintained teaching during the rectorship. I was Rector for 9 years, and I maintained teaching for 7 years. Teaching provided me time to refresh and for relaxation, and also allowed me to understand our university students.