HKU HKU Dept of Statistics & Actuarial Science, HKU


 A Story of 50 Years and Beyond

1996 At HKU, the discipline of Statistics existed as a special teaching unit within the Department of Mathematics prior to 1967, consisting of a senior lecturer and a lecturer. It provided a compulsory year-course for all first year Science students of about 80 and two courses for about 15 second and third year Arts students. (In around 1960, the University’s annual intake was only about 350.)

In 1967, the Faculty of Social Sciences was established. The Statistics Unit left Mathematics to join the new Faculty as an independent Unit. The initial idea was that it should provide services of quantitative research methods for the other five Departments of the new Faculty. The Unit was upgraded to a proper Department a year later. The Faculty of Social Sciences admitted 120 students yearly at the early stage. All first year students were required to read a statistics paper, the equivalent load of two semester courses. The Department of Statistics also provided a few other second and third year courses.

The Department grew gradually, gaining status. Professor S.H. Saw was appointed to the founding Chair in 1969. He developed the second and third year courses up to half of a degree curriculum, to be combined with another half in other disciplines such as Economics. Emphasis was on applied statistics, such as Economic Statistics, Demography, Survey Sampling, Marketing Research, Industrial Statistics, Statistical Methods and others. Professor Saw left HKU in 1971 to take up the post of Chairman of the newly-established National Statistical Commission of Singapore. Even so, he continued his support for the Department: he donated a fund for the Saw Gold Medal in 1971 and another fund for two Saw Swee Hock Scholarships in 2006.

Dr. S.C. Fan was the Head of the Statistics Department from 1971 to 1976. These are the years when the Department started to be taking shape in the Social Science Faculty starting with only five teaching staff. Dr. S.C. Fan was the Head, Dr. W.K. Chiu was a senior lecturer, Mr. C. K. Leung and Dr. K. Lam were lecturers and Mr. R.K.C. Li was an assistant lecturer. Under the leadership of Dr. S.C. Fan, a practical and challenging statistics curriculum was developed and it became quite popular with students in the Social Science Faculty. The program then was able to attract some very talented students who later became prominent figures in the academic field and in the society. Other than contributing a lot to the Department, Dr. S. C. Fan also worked as Dean of the Faculty of Social Science from year 1981-1990.

Department Photo After Professor Saw left, the Department had no Chair Professor until 1976, when Professor John Aitchison, F.R.S.E., came as Head, initially on secondment from the University of Glasgow where he was Titular Professor in Statistics. The University was on the verge of a dynamic expansion, which was to take it way beyond its then student number of 5000, and Quadrennial Planning was a high priority at the time, particularly for new degree structures. To see through the unfolding developments, Professor Aitchison stayed on as Head until retirement in 1989. Gradually, theoretical elements were added to the courses and more courses were introduced to the new curriculum, including even a one-term course in basic actuarial science. While the main reconstructed honours degree was within Social Sciences, the Department was also heavily involved in teaching in the Faculties of Arts and Science.

Professor Aitchison’s arrival sparked off great interests in consultation, research and publications in the Department. More teaching members were recruited. The Department changed from one of playing a supporting role to other disciplines in the Faculty to one of a fully fledged and standard university department of statistics, like its counterparts in overseas universities. Professor Aitchison’s own research conducted in Hong Kong pioneered the analysis of compositional data, which are positive multivariate data that sum to unity, such as household expenditure patterns and material composition of rocks. His seminal work in this area of statistics has earned him a Guy Medal in Silver from the Royal Statistical Society (U.K.) in 1988 and a Krumbein Award from the International Association for Mathematical Geology in 1995.

Department Photo The founding of the Hong Kong Statistical Society in 1977 owes much to Professor Aitchison’s efforts, who poured over the government’s very restrictive red-tapes then concerning the formation of a new society. The Society’s address has been with the Department ever since he was elected the founding President. He also put much effort into setting up a Computer Room furnished with a number of new personal computers when the Department moved to the Run Run Shaw Building from the Knowles Building. Not only did it help solving the numerical problems in research at the Department but also computer implementation could be demonstrated in our teaching for the first time. The significant contributions that an independent department of statistics could make to the cultural and educational life of a university were quickly recognized by other tertiary institutions in Hong Kong, so much so that they also started to set up their own departments of statistics, sometimes under slightly different names. Two years before his retirement, Professor Aitchison launched a part-time M.Soc.Sc.(Applied Statistics) programme in 1987, which has gradually evolved into the present course structure of the Master of Statistics programme.

Professor Richard Cowan succeeded Professor Aitchison as Chair Professor in 1989. Given the large number of courses offered by the Department and the diversity of backgrounds of the students as well as the existence of multifarious study programmes, Professor Cowan led the department into making substantial changes in our course structure by systematising the study programmes with the introduction of clearly defined streams of courses taken by different groups of students in the University. Professor Cowan also foresaw the increasing demand for skills in practical data analysis and statistical computing on our graduates. In response to this, he placed much emphasis on computer-aided elements in the curriculum. He formed a Data Analysis Team in the Department and put Professor Ng in charge of it; the latter shared the same vision and had substantial expertise in SAS, which formed the backbone in statistical software for the Department. The Team was to launch the new computer-aided courses in data analysis using SAS with hands-on teaching and learning, particularly during those critical years of software migration from main-frame with terminal machines of different keyboards to mini-computers of changing types. As the courses began with real problems that the students would learn to resolve at the end of the courses, they were probably the earliest prototype of problem-based learning in the University. Large enrolments were attracted to these courses and their pre-requisite courses.

In 1993, Professor Cowan decided to build on the one-semester course in basic actuarial science to a full B.Sc.(Actuarial Science) degree. Dr. K.C. Yuen, the only teacher with professional qualification in actuarial science at the time, was instrumental to this development. The programme was launched in 1994 with 20 student places and, in the year immediately following, became the number one programme in JUPAS in terms of average score of 3 best A-Level subjects. This highest ranking in quality has been maintained consistently ever since, although new enrolments have seen an almost four-fold increase.

As a result of Professor Cowan’s leadership in teaching and learning, the Department’s total enrolment in 1994-95 was 38% higher than 1990-91, which provided a very significant boost to the Department’s finance. The Department was able to recruit new teachers and supporting staff and to acquire more sophisticated equipments for teaching and research. Professor Cowan also seized the opportunity for space expansion when the university invited units to move to the new Meng Wah Complex. He designed the present layout of the Department, particularly with one computer room and two computer laboratories. In the meantime, the M.Soc.Sc.(Applied Statistics) programme was updated and renamed Master of Statistics. Professor Cowan stepped down as Head in 1995 and resigned from the University in 1997, leaving the Department once again without a Chair Professor.

Professor K.W. Ng served as Head in 1995-1996. He led the Department through the first UGC Research Assessment Exercise in 1996. Based on intake quality, market analysis and support from large players in the industry, the Department obtained the University’s endorsement for the first expansion of the B.Sc.(Actuarial Science) programme from 20 student places to 35 as part of the University’s 1998-2001 triennium plan, which was later approved by the UGC. In this year, Professor Ng discovered a simple inversion of the celebrated Bayes Formula under the positivity condition. He went on leave to the Hong Kong Baptist University as (full) Professor in Mathematics from September 1996 to August 1998.

Professor W.K. Li served as Acting Head for one semester and then as Head until December 1999. The late 1990s marked the beginning of fundamental changes in higher education in Hong Kong. The most significant was the greater emphasis on original research. The University positioned itself by creating a new scheme of Distinguished Visiting Professorship in anticipation of some major shift in the UGC funding policy. Professor Li’s nomination of Professor Howell Tong from the U.K. as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department was successful, beating the Chinese University of Hong Kong (by one day!) in attracting the latter to the University. Professor Howell Tong arrived in 1997 initially for two years under the scheme. He was appointed Chair Professor in 1999, thus filling the vacant chair. His academic standing and administrative experience were quickly spotted by three successive Vice-Chancellors, who appointed him the Founding Dean of the Graduate School in 1998, Acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) in 2000 and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Administration and Development) in 2002, positions which he held till his return to the London School of Economics in 2004.

Rename of department The Department went through the University’s Internal RAE (1998) under Professor Li’s Headship. Upon the commencement of new quota of student places for B.Sc.(Actuarial Science) for the triennium 1998-2001, the Department changed its name to the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science, thus becoming the first department with this name in the Far East and in the Greater-China region. Apart from the B.Sc.(Actuarial Science), the Department had about this time three study themes for students to choose under the B.Soc.Sc.(Statistics): the Mathematical Statistics, Applied Statistics and Risk Management themes. These themes have evolved today into the two Science Majors: the B.Sc.(Statistics) and the B.Sc. (Risk Management). The research strengths in time series analysis and financial statistics (H. Tong, W.K. Li, K.W. Ng, W.S. Chan, H. Yang, P.L.H. Yu, K.C. Yuen, L. Zhu) were at an all time high in the late 1990s, a fact well recognized by the University, which rated Financial Time Series in the Department as an area of research excellence and granted a budget of one million dollars to support the activities in this area, such as supporting a post-doctoral fellowship and conferences. Specifically, the Department organized the Hong Kong International Workshop on Statistics in Finance and the Symposium on Financial Risk and Statistics, both in July 1999. One of the keynote speakers in the symposium was Professor Granger who would become a Nobel Laureate in Economics in 2003.

Professor K.W. Ng was Acting Head when Professor Li took his long leave in the second half of 1999. Professor Ng later took over the Headship, which lasted six years until December 2006, when it was passed to Professor Li, who still holds the post at the time of writing. During this period, the biggest challenge facing the Department was the conflict between two opposing forces: first the substantial shrinkage of the Departmental budget as a consequence of the reduction of the block-grant to the University from the UGC; second the pressure for extra resources in order to increase and improve research output as demanded by the University in response to the UGC’s new policy. Around 2000, the University started to abandon its previous funding policy that effectively kept a close linkage between a department’s budget and its enrolment number. The new resource-allocation model, however, could have an impact on a departmental budget in a way too complicated to explain here. Suffice it to say that in the event the Department suffered badly despite the admirable performance of the Department in terms of both teaching and research in the eyes of its peers inside and outside the University. In fact, the Department’s budget from the block-grant was reduced continuously for several years, each time by 2% to 3%. This unfortunate situation came to a stop only after the Department moved to the Faculty of Science in 2004 in accordance with the decision of the Senate.

Unless alternative sources of income were forthcoming, it was almost impossible to operate under successive budget cuts, because the Department had to sustain the human resources and research projects already in place based on the budget level set after the 38% growth in student enrolment from 1990-91 to 1994-95. As the Chinese saying goes: there are opportunities in crises. About this time, the Director of the Social Sciences Research Centre was on secondment to the Government’s Central Policy Unit. The Dean of Social Sciences asked Professor Ng to be Acting Director of the Centre with the mission to turn it financially independent from the Faculty. Concurrently with his duties in the Department, Professor Ng accepted the challenge and took it as an opportunity. Wearing two hats for about two years and a half, he succeeded in not only making the Centre financially independent from the Faculty ever since, but also providing some extremely welcome supplementary funding for the Department; this tied the Department over the very difficult financial period that ended only with the M.Stat. programme becoming fully self-funded. The programme has since continued to provide critical supplementary funding for the Department. Generous donations from Mr. Patrick Poon and Professor S.H. Saw, together with a matched amount from the University, also helped a lot, particularly in actuarial research and encouragements to students in statistics.

It is worth noting that the Department had been a very active constituent of the Faculty of Social Sciences before it moved to the Faculty of Science. Indeed, for a long period of time, teachers of the Department of Statistics were successfully and successively elected Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences: Professor J. Aitchison, Dr. S.C. Fan, Professor J. Bacon-Shone, and Dr. S.M. Shen. Professor Fung and Professor Li served as Associate Dean respectively for three years and one year and two months. Professor Ng was Chairman of the Faculty’s Research Committee for two years. Professor Bacon-Shone left the Department in 1994 to become full-time Director of the Social Sciences Research Centre. Dr. S.C. Fan’s family later donated a fund to support the on-going S.C. Fan Memorial Lecture Series.

Since 1999, the Department has set itself the mission of becoming a top research-led department at an international level. To date, it has very strong ties with the international academic community and has organized or co-organized a total of 23 international conferences and workshops. The total number of post-1999 visitors to the Department is over 356 (as of April 2008), compared to the total of 130 before 1999. World class academics such as Professor Peter Hall (FRS) and Professor Hans Gerber, who received the Life Time Contribution Award from the International Actuarial Association, have been appointed visiting professors of the department for many years. Professor Clive Granger, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2003, visited the department again in 2006 and gave a public lecture. Three recipients, namely Professors J. Fan (Princeton), X. L. Meng (Harvard) and W.H. Wong (UCLA), of the prestigious President’s Award of the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies of North America have been appointed as Honorary Professors of the Department, while another (Professor T.L. Lai of Stanford University) is serving on its Advisory Board. Professor Howell Tong has been appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor since 2004 so as to formalize his continuing ties with the Department.

The Department has a very proud record of academic
honours won by its teachers. The Department has a very proud record of academic honours won by its teachers. Details are given in the website. Briefly, they have won all the categories of research awards established by the University in 1998, including the highest honour bestowed by the University. Specifically, the Department has won the Distinguished Research Achievement Award (H. Tong), the Outstanding Researcher Awards (W.K. Fung, W.K. Li), the Young Outstanding Researcher Award (S.M.S. Lee), and the Outstanding Research Student Supervisor Award (W.K. Li). Outside the University, Professor Li and Professor Fung have each been a Croucher Foundation Senior Research Fellow. In recognition of Professor Tong’s path-breaking research in non-linear time series analysis, he was, in 2000, the sole winner (in Mathematics) of the National Natural Science Award (Class II) of China and the first person from Hong Kong elected to a Foreign Membership of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. In 2007, he was the first Chinese to receive the Guy Medal in Silver from the Royal Statistical Society (U.K.) in its 114 years of history. Few departments of statistics in the world can boast even one Guy Silver medalist but our Department has had two. In addition, ten teachers of the Department are elected members of the International Statistical Institute, three elected Fellows of the American Statistical Association and three elected Fellows of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics.

In the Internal Research Strategic Exercise in 2003, it scored 4.5 out of 5 and in the 2006 UGC RAE, it scored 88.04% which was slightly above the University average. (HKU was ranked 18th amongst the world's top 200 universities according to the THES-QS World University Rankings 2007.)

Moreover, the Department was placed No.1 in Asia and No.10 worldwide according to a scientific paper entitled "A Digital Picture of the Actuarial Research Community" by Christian Genest & Alberto Carabarin-Aguirre published in North American Actuarial Journal (2013 Vol. 17, 3-12), in terms of publication pages in the actuarial journals of their study over a 30-year period from 1982 to 2011. In 2011, it was designated a Centre of Actuarial Excellence (CAE) by the US Society of Actuaries (SOA) for a period of five years with the status recently renewed for another five years. It is at this time of writing the only university in Asia receiving the CAE research grant, which amounted to over two million Hong Kong dollars.

In addition to academic excellence, the Department believes strongly that it is important to serve the society by producing high quality graduates well trained in statistics, actuarial science and risk management. It has strived with its best to equip its students with the state of the art in each and every course it runs. For instance, a new major B.Sc. (Decision Analytics) was launched in 2015 to meet the needs of the society for talents in the area of data science. HKU Statistics ranked No.1 in Hong Kong/China and No.20 worldwide overall in the QS World University Ranking by Subject 2017. It has also topped the QS ranking as No.1 in Asia for at least 4 consecutive years (2014-2017) in terms of employer reputation.

The Department believes strongly that its success is impossible without the hard work of its staff, teaching and non-teaching, the strong support of its students, its alumni, the industry/commerce and the society in Hong Kong. It looks forward to closer links with its alumni and industry/commerce in the future. In a modern society, the relationship of Town and Gown has elevated to a higher plateau. The experience of top North American universities such as Harvard and Stanford has demonstrated vividly the important contributions that industrial and commercial institutions can make to the cultural and educational life of the society in which they operate through their generous donations to the local universities. The Department is confident that with generous support from similar institutions in Hong Kong, China and the neighbouring regions, it will be able to compete with the best internationally and achieve its mission of becoming one of the top Departments of Statistics in the world, thereby making even greater contributions to the advancement of the society in Hong Kong and China in the many years to come.