The impact of neoliberalism in higher education has been widely discussed and debated, yet most analyses have viewed the changes on university governance and academic work in different countries as slavishly bound by more global neoliberal factors without paying sufficient attention to the local contextual factors. This empirical study foregrounds the local dimension by examining how the actual quotidian effects of RAE 2020 operate within higher education institutions and on working academics in Hong Kong. The paper reports on an interview-based study with 15 education academics from two government-funded universities in Hong Kong. Neoliberal forms of university governance based on a set of RAE-defined performance indicators were identified; academics’ divergent forms of ‘practice of freedom’ in coping with RAE 2020 were delineated. This study discusses why the universities displayed strong ‘reactivity’ to RAE 2020 and explains academics’ practicality and resilience in coping with policy changes by drawing upon Hong Kong's colonial history, government-university relationship and institutional culture in the specific academic environment. This article calls for greater flexibility in assessment regimes to restore trust and autonomy to the professions and development of alternative patterns of academic prestige to elicit a healthy diversity of policy responses. Copyright © 2022 Taylor & Francis.