HONG KONG: Reforms challenge academic standards

When Hong Kong first proposed shifting from a three-year undergraduate degree to four years while reducing upper secondary programmes by a year so students could begin university at age 17, it was seen as a move away from an education system inherited from the British colonial era to a more politically neutral American-style education.

In recent months, the ambitious reform towards a broader university curriculum is being watched closely by a number of countries seeking to modernise their higher education sectors and better prepare students for the wider world of work and global citizenship.

Hong Kong's detailed reforms, unveiled to an international audience at the Going Global conference, were variously described as 'breathtakingly audacious' and 'daring' by an audience of representatives ranging from South Korea and Bangladesh to Arab states.

The first cohort under Hong Kong's new system will emerge in 2012 when universities will have to contend with those leaving schools at 17, and the last intake of 18 year-olds at the same time.

"I am taking a deep breath and we are all saying we have to brace ourselves to meet the challenge," said Professor Amy Tsui, Pro Vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University.

It is not just about an extra year of study but an entire rethink of the university curriculum - a huge undertaking - while also ensuring standards are maintained even as students have one year less schooling than previous cohorts.

"It is not about what we do in that extra year [at university] but the four-year degree as a whole," Tsui said.

Hong Kong's universities are redesigning their programmes to increase the study of the liberal arts, languages, ethics and philosophy, and aim to boost overseas experiences for students, including volunteering in developing countries. They are hoping to improve their soft skills, including communication and team skills, at the same time.

Tsui said different faculties had to go back to the drawing board in devising their programmes, and extensive consultations were carried out with staff, students and administrators.

"In the beginning there was a lot of debate about depth and breadth, discussions about how you teach enough chemistry to be able to become a chemist.

"Now people are beginning to see it's not what you've learnt but how you learn it and the intellectual capabilities you have developed that's more important," Tsui said.

The four-year undergraduate degree will be more flexible than the current three-year degree, with more opportunities to combine subjects from different faculties.

Unlike the current system where students apply for a particular subject, students will not declare a major subject till the end of the first year so they can explore options and change their minds. It will also enable universities to offer many more subject combinations, Tsui said.

"We must have a maximum for the number of credits required so students have room for non-required learning. This includes global citizenship, a compulsory requirement."

The radical changes mirror a parallel reform process in the secondary curriculum. While lopping off a year of study, which previously prepared students for more specialised university degrees, the new curriculum will allow for more creative and artistic subjects, debate, and critical thinking, moving away from the heavily prescribed examination-oriented curriculum of the past.

"We believe those who admit our students will change the view that our students focus only on rote learning," said Dr Catherine KK Chan, the government's Deputy Secretary for Education.

A significant innovation in the new degree is 'experiential learning' or putting students in real-life situations. Tsui stressed this was not the same as work experience where students were simply found "something to do".

Students should be able to tackle novel situations and ill-defined problems, and that could include more out-of-classroom and practical work as part of the degree, she said.

"It is important to know what to do when confronted with situations where we don't even know that the problem is," she said, citing the bird flu or SARS crisis as an example of such a challenge in Hong Kong in recent years.

"We did not even know what the question was, let alone how to answer it."

Engineering students, for example, would work on real structures, or architectural students would actually consult with the community, she said. Other subjects would have more practical work, less common in undergraduate programmes in East Asia than in the West. This was an aspect of the reform that met with most enthusiasm internationally.

Professor Michael Wharton, Vice-provost of University College London, said he was impressed with the idea of experiential learning. "And Hong Kong is in the lead in this way."

UCL has said it would like to offer more liberal programmes alongside its three-year degrees.

A number of universities have been moving towards delaying subject choices and providing a more general programme in the first year of study, including the University of Melbourne in Australia and Aberdeen University in Scotland. But Hong Kong's is the first system-wide revamp.

Wharton said his institution had been watching Hong Kong's reforms "very carefully". He believed Hong Kong had to manage the high aspirations of its students so the new four-year programme was seen as academically rigorous as the three-year subject-specific degree.

"And that has been addressed in the reforms," he said.