Education reforms, including to degrees, reap rewards

Hong Kong’s new academic structure, now phased in across senior secondary and higher education, has resulted in marked achievements in extending education opportunities and demand for higher education, along with early indicators that it is better preparing students for further studies, a review report has revealed.

The city has taken the major step in moving from a three-year to a four-year undergraduate system. In September 2012, the first students under the new system enrolled in new, four-year programmes, alongside the last students embarking on three-year courses under the old model.

The Progress Report on the New Academic Structure Review: The New Senior Secondary learning journey – Moving forward to excel, published on 19 April, shows that the changes at university level are part of fundamental reforms, systematically implemented since 2000 and affecting all levels of education in Hong Kong.

The aim has been to extend access to education, and improve student learning. The reforms have culminated in the New Academic Structure for Senior Secondary Education and Higher Education.

The reforms

In line with higher education being extended to four years, school education has been reduced from 13 years to 12. However, opportunities to receive senior secondary schooling have been extended to all, which is expected to increase the demand for higher education, or ‘multiple pathways’ through vocational and sub-degree alternatives that can eventually lead to a bachelor degree.

Under the previous model, only the top third of school-leavers were entitled to prepare for the former Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) – the passport to undergraduate education.

In contrast, in 2011-12, more than 85% of the age group enrolled in Secondary Six, according to the report prepared by Hong Kong’s Education Bureau, the Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

The report also shows that under the new system there is a substantial increase in the number of students continuing to further studies. In 2012, more than two-thirds of those who sat the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination achieved the grades needed to enter bachelor or sub-degree courses in Hong Kong.

In addition, 40% more students qualified for undergraduate places than those who completed the HKALE exam last year. Enrolment figures show that 80% of those qualifying for bachelor and sub-degree courses under the new system are now studying on such programmes in Hong Kong.

Participation at undergraduate level has, as a result, increased to 23% of school-leavers, compared with 18% under the old model. Another 7% are studying overseas, with the strongest performers recruited to competitive universities such as Oxford in the United Kingdom and Yale in the United States.

The inclusion of the HKDSE in the UCAS tariff enabled universities in the UK to offer places based on comparable GCE A-level grades. The UK, followed by Mainland China, was the leading destination for Hong Kong students in 2012.

The two countries accounted for 25% and 22% respectively of students who went outside Hong Kong, according to survey data from schools. A total of 14% went to Australia, and 13% each to the US and Taiwan.

The study, based on surveys involving 17,000 people as well as seminars, workshops and focus-group interviews for around 20,000 people, also demonstrates that the new curriculum is better preparing students for further studies, by balancing academic learning with enquiry and non-academic activities, and with liberal studies, applied learning and ‘other learning experiences’ now included in the curriculum.


Initial feedback from universities and their first-year students cited in the report indicates that this balance in the school curriculum is reflected positively in the knowledge and learning skills of new undergraduates.

However, the Education Bureau, the Curriculum Development Council and Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority also announced some changes to the new curriculum and assessment, in response to feedback showing that there has been excessive workload for teachers and students, and there have been challenges in teaching the greater diversity of students completing secondary school.

Content for some subjects will be streamlined, without affecting academic standards or the international benchmarking of the HKDSE. Schools will also be given greater flexibility in the total learning hours required over the three-year curriculum.

Dr Catherine Chan Ka-ki, the deputy secretary of education, who has played a key role in steering the reform, said at the launch of the report: "The NAS [New Academic Structure] marks a fundamental change, where the curriculum, learning and teaching, assessment, the entire system and multiple pathways are aligned.”

Professor Mary James, associate director of research in the faculty of education at Cambridge University, president of the British Educational Research Association and an advisor on the reforms, noted that the significant advances in student achievement justified the changes.

In a keynote address at an event to report on progress, she praised the reforms for their balance between developing subject knowledge and skills and attitudes. There was also a healthy balance between Confucian values, such as a role for memorisation and respect for family and authority, and Western values favouring independent, critical and creative thinking.

This, she said, prepared students well for higher education and employment, locally and internationally.

“Hong Kong sees itself very clearly as an international city, sitting between the East and the West. Therefore, its international profile is crucially important for it. It is quite evident from the review that already the new diploma and the new structure is gaining acceptance within this region, in Mainland China and other countries of the world.”

Cambridge had welcomed the HKDSE. “The emphasis on independent study, on critical thinking and on creativity is something that is highly valued in top universities in the UK and beyond,” James said.

“In the 21st century, such innovation, such creativity, such criticality, are vital for a new world, which you cannot predict.”

Other systems, including her own, could learn from the Hong Kong reforms, James said.

Making reference to the conflict raging between Michael Gove, the UK’s secretary of state for education, on the one hand, and academics and teaching professionals on the other, she noted that in Hong Kong the changes were driven by educational values and evidence, not politics and ideology.

The extensive collaboration between policy bodies, schools, universities, education research, and the wider community was particularly important for Hong Kong’s success.

“What I am concerned about in my context [England] is it [education] is increasingly driven by party politics and ideology. I fear children and their concerns are getting lost. I want to see created some system that rises above party politics, to try to get to a consensus.”

These are early days for the new system. Teething problems are bound to arise and are being addressed. But Hong Kong still has reason to celebrate the early achievements.

Meanwhile, other systems can take note of both what it is doing, and how. Universities and the wider society should ultimately reap the benefit of the learners that are emerging.

* Katherine Forestier was the professional writer of the progress report. This stage of the review focused on the implementation of the New Senior Secondary curriculum and assessment, and its articulation with multiple pathways for further study and employment. Curriculum reform at higher education level has not yet been reviewed.