Education for Developing Countries 1973-1985
Professor Cheng Kai-Ming: student 1983-1987
Professor Kai-Ming recalls how he came to study at the Institute and to meet Peter Williams. He also remembers John Adams Hall (where he stayed again on the morning of the anniversary celebrations), the difficulties of being so far away from home and the pluralistic experience of studying at the Institute, which has informed his work ever since:
"I still remember John Adams Hall very well. I agree that John Adams is the most memorable. I stayed there again this morning for a few hours. This morning I therefore had my breakfast twice. I had had my breakfast in the plane, but I was tempted to join the queue in the dining room in order to have another feeling of the old John Adams days. I even lay on my bed without sleeping in order just to feel …. But one thing I never did when I was last in John Adams, was I took a shower. A shower is a new thing in this very British building. Although the shower is not quite working - it only drips!
I came here after 16 years of teaching as a science teacher and a school principal. I closed my private school and did my Masters in Hong Kong. Then one evening my wife talked to me and said, ‘I can feel the kind of itch in you to do a PhD. Why don’t you try it?’ I replied that we didn’t have the money. But she said, ‘I have calculated, maybe you can survive for one year’. Therefore I came and that was very late, already July. So I sent a letter to Peter. At that time there was no email, there was not even a courier. So I sent a letter, a slow letter, a snail letter and then I called. And at that time even making a long distance call was not a very easy thing. But fortunately Peter was then in the office. Later I realised that was very, very fortunate. And I said Professor Williams do you remember if you received my letter. He said, yes, I recall. I said there are two options, I haven’t made up my mind yet. He said, never mind come over. And there I went and it was very, very generous. I don’t think that would happen nowadays. It would go through committee after committee before you are accepted and you wouldn’t register students like that.
So I came for a year. The year was really memorable. It changed my life, although the year was financially rather difficult. I remember one day I was in the phone booth by Tavistock Square, using a phonecard £10 each and you saw the mark actually moving across the card and it finished before my son, who was only 2 years old, was able to talk to me. So I actually cried over the phone because I could not afford another. But it was really rewarding.
I was interviewed by the end, I think it was May, by the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Woburn Square and my own professor came over here and I got a job. I don’t know what Peter had written in his own reference letter but I was told that my supervisor had written very highly of me. So I got a job. And that changed my whole life. Coming to London was only my second trip outside Hong Kong. The first one was to Singapore, a very short trip and London was the second. In contrast, last year I lost count of how many times I travelled. My wife says 30 times and that was a change.
But that was only part of the change. It was a total eye-opener that opened me to a lot of international friends. Especially by that time Philip Coombs, Torsten Husen and so on. But what impressed me most, what changed me most, and was pertinent to my career now, is supervision…..the supervision is superb. Both Williams’ inspired me that supervision is not a matter of control. It is a matter of liberation. They really liberated me. They kept very close eyes on what I was doing. But they never gave me one instruction as to what I should do. They only discussed with me, so I can proudly say that the thesis was entirely my own, but it wouldn’t have happened without the supervisors. So, I think I have taken that tradition to Hong Kong and most of the students will find that this is not like a supervisor, particularly the students from mainland China. The first thing they say is could you tell me what to do. I’m yours, give me a title. They think they belong to their supervisor, but I say my supervisor didn’t do that to me. If you are a PhD student and when you have finished your PhD thesis you should be better than your supervisor in your topic. And the supervisor here is just to be a co-worker, to help you out and that is very, very inspiring.
The other thing is, coming to UK to me was an eye-opener, the first time in my life I experienced some real pluralism, which was never a major part of my own culture. And it was only the first time in my life that I became aware that if you are right there are others who are also right. This also entered my thesis, which is about multiple perspectives of the same incidents. It also comes into the course I teach now in Hong Kong and the United States, which is about cultural perspectives in educational studies. In Harvard every year they have a very serious student evaluation procedure which asks the students only 5 major questions. From last year onwards they added one question, an open-ended question, which asked “Do you think the course has taken care of diversity?” Diversity in the United States is a big thing, which means ethnic diversity and ethnic equality. My students wrote that the whole course is about diversity and I think I learnt that from the Institute.
I came to this Institute when the department had passed its colonial ages, though Hong Kong was still a colony. And my study here could easily be taken as part of the colonial legacy, but I don’t think so, because colonialism is a matter of political parties and national governments. It has little to do with people and particularly academics. What I have learned from this international Institute, is that it has a strong dose of British tradition which has nothing to do with colonialism. And I came to understand, in Hong Kong I would never be identified as colonial. Sometimes I was identified by some as the very opposite. Colonialism of the colonial era is a very complex entity and needs a political paradigm to analyse it. It brings with it all kinds of cultural and very human elements, where because of colonialism people interact across cultures, across systems. My wish for the Institute and the school or department is that it would carry on with these endeavours, but in a new framework. I have a feeling that the notion of international and of comparative education in the old sense of the term has almost come to an end, because, as all business are now in the world, few can survive by doing what they did yesterday. The Institute is moving into a new era and this gathering I think will be a milestone for this international endeavour.
 Professor Kai-Ming was co-supervised by Professor Peter Williams and Professor Gareth Williams.
Compiled and edited by Clare Bentall and
Angela Little. First issued Spring 2005.