Dec 2018

Professor John Spinks, Senior Advisor to the President and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Hong Kong, has received the U21 Award from Universitas21 in recognition of his sustained contribution to the internationalisation of HKU. Universitas 21 (U21) is a leading global network of research-intensive universities committed to promoting the value of internationalisation and multinational collaboration. The U21 Awards recognise and celebrate the work of individuals who have made a significant contribution to cross-network internationalisation in higher education.

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We also did an interview with Prof. Spinks. He says...

Q: Why did you choose to work at HKU at first place?
When I was an undergraduate in Newcastle, in the north of England, I used to go with one of my best friends, a Malaysian/Singaporean, for Dim Sum in a local restaurant.  He and I met up a few years later in London, when he recommended me to consider applying to work in HKU, a University he had known by reputation only.  The day after that meeting, an advertisement for a Lectureship in HKU (in my own areas of expertise) arrived on my desk, so you could say that it was serendipity or perhaps even fate.

Q: Why did you move from your academic career as a psychology professor to work in internationalization?

It was never my intention, and maybe not even my wish, to work as an administrator in education.  I loved interacting directly with students, seeing their progress, and was amazed by their diligence and hard work.  And, as professors, we always have a sense of personal pride in the achievements of our students, even though we are only a small part of helping them along their career paths.  However, after working for a few years as Head of Psychology, I was asked by the then Vice-Chancellor to take on a full-time administrative position, and, although I had informed him that I would not take on this position, events subsequently transpired that found me in the position of Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, as well as Chairman of the University Admissions Committee.  At that time, we started to consider whether we should recruit students from the Mainland.  Together with two other members of staff (both to this day in senior positions in HKU), we admitted just 30 undergraduates each year, in collaboration with four of the leading Mainland universities.  Opening up this new area for HKU was exciting and highly rewarding, as we were able within just a short period of time to attract to HKU some of the most talented students in Asia. 

Q: You started the international student recruitment from a small team and worked on these more than 20 years , what were the challenges throughout all these years? What motivates you to be so passionate and dedicated on enhancing the internationalization of the University?

By far the biggest challenge for HKU was establishing its reputation among families in cities across Asia -- families that knew the names and reputations of the Oxbridges and the Ivy Leagues, but had never thought about sending their sons and daughters to this Asian university.  In many cases, they had never heard of HKU.  And, the Hong Kong Government, unlike that of Singapore, were reticent about investing in a comprehensive scheme to promote Hong Kong universities across the world.  The situation changed when international students started to study at HKU. They returned to their alma mater schools and shared their experience about the diversity of international professors, the teaching excellence and opportunities they gained from their studies etc. More juniors followed their seniors' path and made HKU as their first choice of tertiary destination. The feedback was made even stronger when the seniors graduated from HKU and started successful careers in the multinationals based in Hong Kong.

Indeed, HKU is it is sometimes difficult to explain that internationalization is much broader than the recruitment of international students -- it is about developing first the intenational visibility of HKU and then its reputation.  The rest will follow. 

Of course, there were many other challenges, but what made the task so enjoyable was that there was a sense of common purpose among all the people I work with.  The schools and Government ministries once they understood the value of a HKU education, started to engage with us and wanted to collaborate. In HKU, we wanted to bring top students to campus and to nurture them to become future leaders, by providing academic excellence and diverse opportunities during their study. 

My goal has always been to hear students, parents and university colleagues in countries on the other side of the Earth say that they know of and respect a place called the University of Hong Kong.  I want to be assured that HKU is firmly established as a university with an international reputation.  I am very pleased to see that after all these years, the University has more than 100 nationalities of students on campus, which makes it a truly international University. Both students in HHong Kong and those from other parts of world benefit from this interaction. Now, we have started to develop more dual degree and other forms of collaborative programmes with other top universities, that we believe will give students a different level of international exposure.

Q: How do you see the importance of bringing different student nationalities to HK and HKU?

Despite all the protectionist stances that we see if other parts of the world today, I do not believe that Hong Kong can survive as an economic powerhouse without continuing to develop its global connections.  The most important of these are with Mainland China, and, in particular, the Greater Bay Area, but we have been and still are a globally connected community, and we need to help our students to experience and understand their futures from that perspective.  So, part of bringing non-local students to HKU is to develop the students' international networks, and their understanding of and sensitivity to, other cultures and their values.  The most valuable positive experience I have had in my life was coming to Hong Kong from the U.K. and trying to understand how another culture, highly successful in its own right, worked and progressed. I want others to have that same experience.

At the same time, universities are sometimes judged, rightly or wrongly, by how much they are able to attract foreign students.  That is more than just a proxy for its reputation.  Attracting to HKU top students from Mainland China, from India, and from other countries around the world such as Kazakhstan, Nigeria,  the United States, France, and Middle Eastern countries enhances the academic standards of the institution.

Q: Tell us one of your most memorable experiences you had on the international student recruitment scheme. Anything impressed you the most?

There are so many memorable experiences I have had in international recruitment that it is difficult to single out any.  It is a common experience to go into a new high school around the world, where HKU is perhaps not even known, and to come out with University Counsellors and students all wanting to know more about how to get into HKU.  That can only happen when HKU is able to offer something highly significant and positive.  A decade ago, we had been trying, for some years, to get into the leading high school in India to talk to their students.  Each time we approached them, they would say that they were too busy with other events, or, indeed, other university visits.  One day, their school Counsellor suddenly approached us and asked if we could give a talk on HKU to their school Assembly the next day!  I was shocked -- after years of approaching them without success, they were now approaching us?!  It was perhaps no coincidence that HKU had just been ranked that week by QS and THE as one of the top 25 universities in the world!  We have gone on to admit many of their alumni over the subsequent years, and, as with many of our relationships, the Counsellor from that school is not just a colleague who we work with, but a good and trusted friend.  With those friends in many countries, working with them to achieve our common interests, and where I can meet some of the most talented students that education can support, it is perhaps not surprising that I often state that the job I have in HKU is perhaps the best job in the world.