Extreme makeover

The University of Hong Kong has rebuilt its curriculum from the ground up to embrace 'experiential learning' and internationalism so as to produce 'global citizens'. Hannah Fearn reports

February 4, 2010

The extension of knowledge lies in the exhaustive investigation of principles, of things and affairs," the Confucian scholar Zhu Xi proclaimed almost 1,000 years ago. Today, those words serve as the mantra of a major programme of curriculum reform being undertaken to create global citizens for the 21st century.

Most universities regularly reassess the modules they offer, but the University of Hong Kong has gone beyond that to fundamentally reimagine the undergraduate degree - it is a wholly more ambitious, and risky, project that significantly extends both the length and breadth of study. And it has the rest of the higher education world watching to see if such a bold plan can succeed.

The transformation positions Hong Kong at the forefront of a wave of change that has been sweeping through universities across the world. Two years ago, the University of Melbourne shook up its curriculum, and the resulting "Melbourne model" sparked a global debate about the type of degree needed to prepare young people for life and work in the 21st century. The University of Aberdeen has already detailed a new curriculum that offers undergraduates the opportunity to study a wider range of disciplines, while the vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick is taking soundings on a new general education programme. As the Bologna Process and Lisbon Treaty march forward, other European universities are also making major changes to the way they educate their students.

It is perhaps surprising that the University of Hong Kong is embarking on such wholesale reforms when it is already a member of the international elite with a reputation to maintain. At 24th position in the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, it is Asia's second-highest rated institution. As the Oxbridge of East Asia, its graduates are in demand - 80 per cent go straight into employment after completing a first degree, and 18 per cent take on further study. Such is its research standing that almost half the university's 10,000 students are enrolled on postgraduate programmes.

So why does it need to change? Given its location in a global business centre, the university is well placed to observe the ways in which the world its graduates will enter has been changed by globalisation. It is a very different one from that in which the university was established almost a century ago. Today's graduates need to be able to operate in a multicultural, multilingual environment where they will have to acquire new skills to adapt to changing tasks and career paths.

But the university is populated predominantly (at least among the student community) by Hong Kong Chinese. Even at postgraduate level, there are few international students - a visit to the campus suggests that Caucasian students are scarce, with black and South Asian faces rarer still. And a curriculum created for a different era required updating to develop students' intellectual flexibility and agility.

For Amy Tsui, Hong Kong's pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning), globalisation has made the world smaller while the problems that society must deal with have become much larger in scale and more "ill-defined". There are, she says, "fewer moral certainties, more moral dilemmas" - and a university education must address this.

Higher education itself presents a major challenge, Tsui believes: although there is strong demand for higher education, employers express dissatisfaction with the quality of many graduates; companies demand generic capabilities and yet refuse to give on-the-job training; students are more vocationally focused than ever, but their career paths will twist and turn throughout their lives; moral and civic values are largely missing from much undergraduate education.

Having grappled with all these issues while crafting its new curriculum, the university came to a radical solution. Hong Kong concluded that undergraduate learning is not only about academic endeavour, but the total experience of life on campus. Every part of a student's life, from organising a party in halls to doing voluntary work for a charity, should contribute towards the university's educational aims.

Indeed, the institution has gone so far as to describe its ideal graduates down to the qualities and virtues they should display. This has been translated into the university's educational aims. Graduates should be able to tackle "ill-defined" problems; they should behave ethically both personally and professionally; they must consider themselves "global citizens" and act as leaders and advocates for the "improvement of the human condition".

"We're asking fundamental questions about the relationship between human beings and our environment. What is the role of the university? It is to understand human beings' role in the world," Tsui says.

Because such an ambitious programme requires time, undergraduate degrees at Hong Kong will be lengthened from three to four years by 2012 - although even with the extra year it will be no small task to achieve every goal. To ensure that all the desired qualities are instilled in students, all undergraduates will be expected to engage in experiential learning (in essence problem-solving skills and practical training), undertake international study or work, and study a common core curriculum in addition to their degree discipline. English will be not only the language of instruction, but also the lingua franca for all activities on campus. And the university intends to recruit more students from abroad to help foster international engagement and global awareness.

"By making the curriculum flexible," Tsui says, "you can allow students to think about what they're interested in and they can change if they want to."

Experiential learning is a fundamental part of the new curriculum. "It's about how you can (design a project) so that defining the problem yourself is part of the assignment. As part of their degree requirement, students will have to go and take part in a project in a workplace. We all know that this is a huge undertaking."

Not everyone welcomed the development of Hong Kong's new curriculum - or the new university ethos, to which it seems to equate. When discussions began in 2006, students were angered by the idea that they would be required to communicate in English at all times - not just in lectures and seminars, but even when in their halls, when organising sports groups or setting up student societies.

"There was resistance. But the reason we do it is about inclusiveness," says Tsui, who stood firm on the issue. "(Previously) some of the overseas staff members felt that they were left out. The overseas students felt left out. We're talking about intercultural understanding, so we should try to facilitate that."

Of all the changes, it is Hong Kong's common core curriculum that is earning the most scrutiny from other institutions. By 2012, when the new curriculum comes into force, all students will be expected to take six general education modules in their first two years. These modules will reflect and explore "common human experiences". Students may select from a range of modules, but they must take at least one on each of the following topics: scientific and technological literacy, the humanities, China, and global issues.

"No matter what community you're in, you will need to demonstrate an understanding of these issues," Tsui says.

Two years ago, after the four key themes had been decided, the university asked faculty members to propose modules in each category. Senior managers' fears that staff would be reticent proved unfounded as they received an overwhelming 223 proposals at the first stage.

Gwyn Edwards, associate professor in the faculty of education and co-author of the common curriculum, says he was not surprised by the enthusiasm that greeted the innovation. "It's not about what knowledge the students should have, it's about what issues they should address."

Pilot courses were developed quickly. Hong Kong's current undergraduates are still in the three-year degree system, but students beginning their studies this year will be asked to take at least two core courses. Eight such courses are already being piloted, including "Breakthroughs in biomedical science" and "Sexuality and gender: diversity and society".

This common core will be reviewed regularly. Its designers are passionate that it should be relevant both to students and to the wider world. By 2014, there will an interim review of the new courses, and by 2016 there will be an assessment of the four core themes. So vital is this element that new academic positions will be attached to it.

Other elements of the new curriculum are also being trialled now. Experiential learning, in which undergraduates grapple with complex real-world problems, is already a graduation requirement for the social sciences and credit-bearing in the sciences. In time, it will be a fundamental part of every single Hong Kong degree.

The department of architecture has sent students into communities to design facilities such as bridges or schools. The students say they returned to university more mature in their thinking and better equipped to tackle their work. As part of these projects, students are expected to communicate with civic leaders, community members and engineers. They cannot work only with their student peers.

"Architecture is a collaborative discipline. It is a social, economic and political activity," says John Lin, assistant professor of architecture. He and other academics leading experiential learning projects report that students who participate come back to university as leaders. Real-life experience sets them apart from their peers.

Similarly, engineering students from Hong Kong have taken part in a reconstruction project in parts of southern Sichuan that were destroyed by the 2008 earthquake. This forced them to look beyond issues of design and construction and to think about their involvement in rebuilding people's lives.

The academics involved in brokering these experiential learning projects say that they, too, find personal fulfilment.

"It's exciting for the students as well as for the faculty staff. The education I got (as an undergraduate) was very much in the classroom," says Albert Ko, principal research engineer in the university's department of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. "Most lecturers on campus tend to do both teaching and research, but these kinds of student projects really develop different qualities and skills."

However, he says, experiential learning cannot work on a large scale unless investment is made. "Universities need to channel resources to support these people in the outside organisations to make that successful."

Other examples of project-based learning include summer research fellowships in the physics department, and schemes in which sociology students teach English abroad (which also stimulates their development as global citizens).

Ian Holliday, dean of the faculty of social sciences, leads a project in which students teach refugee children on the Thai-Burma border. Even though the scheme is credit-bearing, it is currently voluntary.

Such "opportunities for cross-cultural learning" are absolutely essential for undergraduates, Holliday says. "They're learning much more than they could possibly here at the university. The world is global now. Jobs will require you to have some kind of multi-disciplinary background. It's right for the students to broaden their horizons."

But for all Hong Kong's achievements so far, there are myriad concerns about the curriculum reform. The project is so ambitious that even senior academics worry that such rapid change will prove impossible to manage. John Malpas, pro vice-chancellor (planning and resources), describes the coming years as a "tremendous undertaking". One problem, he admits, is how quickly lecturers can slip into student-centred teaching, as the new curriculum requires.

"I think this is always a problem in a research-led university," Malpas says. "The university concerns itself with (its position in) the rankings because, along with research reputation, this is what stakeholders look at. But we want to integrate the teaching and learning with the research emphasis. It's not black and white. These things are very much intertwined.

"We have our concerns. If we do this, we want to do it properly. I'm sure we will be able to, but we're going to have to work hard at it. Everyone agrees with the philosophy, but naturally there are people who are going to be concerned that this is going to be extra work."

To address some of these fears, the university is taking on additional staff to help deliver the common core. "Some of those are being hired in recognition of the core curriculum but also for their research potential," Malpas says.

Funding could also be a problem. "One unfortunate thing is that the Government has seen fit to fund this at only 62 per cent per student. Are we going to be able to fund appropriately what we really want to do?" Malpas asks. To accommodate the changes, the additional student numbers and the extra year's study, the university may be forced to raise tuition fees.

And then there is the content of the common core itself. This has been the subject of much debate at Hong Kong, some of which is unresolved. Malpas says he would have liked the curriculum to tackle the issue of environmental sustainability in different ways.

As for the students, there is a sense of anxiety among those who already serve as advocates for global citizenship within the university. Student representatives from campaigning and awareness groups such as Climate Chance, Humanity in Focus and HK Alliance against Aids fear that bringing "global citizenship" into the curriculum will destroy undergraduates' passion for activism.

Yves Wan Yau Sum, an undergraduate student and representative of Humanity in Focus, acknowledges that the university and its curriculum must change to help students realise their potential, but struggles to accept the new curriculum and its goals.

"I'm concerned. Global citizenship for me is something that I feel is more personal than academic. The core curriculum doesn't necessarily have to be the traditional academic lectures and tutorials. I would like it to be more about projects."

The students also wonder how something as personal and nebulous as "global citizenship" can be made a graduation requirement. "I'm quite concerned about assessments. Social service is something that can't be assessed. The purpose of the new curriculum should not be to push students to do something, but to encourage participation," says Wan Yau Sum.

The reforms face other big hurdles. Hong Kong's two cornerstones of internationalism - diversity on campus and English as the lingua franca of all student activity - are far from embedded within the university.

Everywhere, from the on-campus Starbucks to the library and student halls of residence, Cantonese is spoken as the language of choice. Posters pinned to student and academic noticeboards often carry no English translation. Even in front of anglophone visitors, academic staff often break off into Cantonese or Mandarin as an aside.

The academic staff has an international flavour, with 40 per cent coming from overseas (another 40 per cent come from Hong Kong and 15 per cent from the Chinese mainland). However, more than 80 per cent of the student population is drawn from Hong Kong and mainland China. Although all staff and students speak English fluently, they slip naturally into their mother tongue with fellow Chinese. There is little the university management can do about this, curriculum overhaul or not.

Examples of diversity are hard to find, with some troubling consequences. Wing-Ku Fong, a fourth-year government and law student, admitted that before she worked and studied in Australia, her views about people different from herself verged on racist.

She is a native of Hong Kong, which is 95 per cent Chinese, and while attending her local university she had met very few people from other communities. Upon her return to Hong Kong, she came to see just how homogeneous the campus was. This realisation led her to start the Cultural Diversity Ambassador group, which aims to bring people together to help them better understand one another and to become friends.

The group boasts just one black member, a South African student who did not wish to be named. She says she chose Hong Kong because of its international reputation, but found students unwilling to integrate. "The problem is, even international students stick together. I don't know many Chinese," she says.

Perhaps the picture will change when the university recruits more international students, but the campus today is hardly an ideal place in which to sow the seeds of global citizenship.

Tsui admits that the difficulties are something that she is "very much aware of". The university has already lowered its sights to a more modest target of 50 per cent of extracurricular activities to be carried out in English. But creating common experiences will, she hopes, make a start in changing attitudes and the future of the university.

If the institution's plan succeeds, it will no doubt be groundbreaking. With curriculum reform a hot issue worldwide, the sector is watching Hong Kong's progress closely, and many observers believe it could be the most influential restructuring that global higher education has seen. But to achieve that goal, there is significant work to be done.

"There are lots of potential problems and concerns," Malpas acknowledges. "People say if we get this right it's going to be the most amazing transformation. It's a very big and very prestigious project. If it works, then probably only the University of Hong Kong could do it in such a short time. I hope it does work. The proof will be in the pudding."

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