Hong Kong academy set to take a great leap forward

Hiring boom follows 'ambitious' move to broader four-year degree courses. John Morgan reports

Hong Kong's universities are preparing to switch from three-year degrees to more generalised four-year courses with a stress on internationalism as part of wide-ranging reforms to its education system.

The government-led New Academic Structure aims to create citizens "better prepared for the 21st century" by reshaping secondary school and university curricula.

In 2012, all eight of the city's universities will switch to four-year degrees. The institutions have characterised the move as a chance to provide more "liberal" courses.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government also aims to increase the proportion of "non-local" students to 20 per cent at the undergraduate level.

And in another step towards internationalisation, the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) has been given a points tariff by the UK's Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which will make it possible for Hong Kong students to enter British universities directly.

As they adjust to the reforms, Hong Kong's universities are faced with the challenge of coping not just with an extra year of study, but also with a double cohort of students in 2012. A massive staff-recruitment drive to increase teaching capacity is under way.

University leaders and government officials from Hong Kong discussed the changes at the British Council's Going Global conference in London last month.

Mary Stiasny, assistant director for learning, teaching and international at the Institute of Education, University of London, chaired the session "Hong Kong: audacious in reform".

She said that among the national education reforms planned or under way, Hong Kong's were "perhaps the most ambitious of all".

At the secondary level, Hong Kong will replace its GCSE and A-level equivalents with a single set of examinations, including vocational electives.

Catherine Chan, deputy secretary for education in the Hong Kong government, told the session that the New Academic Structure had two aims: to better prepare students for the 21st century through "whole-person development and lifelong learning", and to "continue to increase the competitiveness of Hong Kong as an international city".

She added: "Universities play a very important role. For the first time, universities, government and schools are all collaborating."

Root-and-branch rethink

Amy Tsui, pro vice-chancellor and vice-president (teaching and learning) of the University of Hong Kong, told the conference that although the change to four years was compulsory for all universities, beyond that "the government never said what we have to do. We were given a free hand, so we approached it in different ways."

Of her institution, she said: "The question was not: 'What are we going to do with this extra year?', but: 'What would we like to see if we were to rethink the whole degree?'?"

Responding to globalisation will be a key element of the new curriculum, Professor Tsui said. There will also be a focus on the university's mission to cultivate "moral values and ethics".

Judy Tsui, vice-president (international and executive education) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told Times Higher Education that universities were pleased to be receiving an injection of capital funding for residential and teaching facilities.

She added that at her institution, "what we are doing is increasing general education requirements and English proficiency".

This would allow the university to "liberalise and broaden" its courses in the early years of study, before students moved on to core subjects in later years, she said.

Students entering universities from Hong Kong's secondary schools should be used to a less specialised curriculum.

Under the new diploma, each student must study four core subjects - Chinese, English, mathematics and liberal studies.

They must also take two or three additional elective subjects, which can include applied learning courses, and will also be required to undergo "other learning experiences", such as moral and civic education. Students will study a maximum of eight subjects.

But Professor Amy Tsui warned of the challenge represented by the double cohort of 2012, when the first pupils leave secondary school after six years under the HKDSE at the same time as the last pupils under the old seven-year system.

"We have to have twice the classrooms ... I'm taking a deep breath. We are all saying that we have to brace ourselves to meet the challenge," she said.

Timothy Tong, president of Hong Kong Polytechnic, told another session of the conference that his institution needed to hire an additional 1,000 professors to prepare.

"We have to look internationally - there is no other way," he said.

Universities will also be stepping up their recruitment of "non-local" students - including those from mainland China - to meet the government's 20 per cent target, up from the current level of about 11 per cent.

Dr Chan said: "We have to. Unless you increase the percentage of non-local students, you can't even talk about cultural understanding."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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