The trend in the UK and some other European countries is towards shorter and even “accelerated” degree programmes. But in Hong Kong, extending undergraduate courses to four years is helping to create a new generation of socially responsible citizens, a university leader has said.
Speaking at Times Higher Education’s Young Universities Summit at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Timothy Tong, president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, described how his institution’s decision to extend undergraduate degrees from three to four years in 2012-13 led to a huge rise in student volunteering, with thousands of students using the extra year of study to undertake subject-related projects benefiting the poor, sick and uneducated in Hong Kong and further afield.
In a keynote address, Professor Tong said that the take-up of “service learning” had increased twentyfold between 2012-13 and 2015-16, with 3,785 students completing a credit-bearing community-based placement last year, compared with only 189 three years earlier.
Hong Kong Polytechnic students undertook almost 150,000 hours of community work last year, up from only 7,560 in 2012-13, he added.
Some 77 per cent of projects were carried out in Hong Kong, including one in which chartered surveying students created maps of the city, working with the children of immigrants to aid their social integration. Another 17 per cent of students carried out initiatives in mainland China, including a group of biomedical engineering students who created artificial limbs for children in Guangdong province.
In projects in Rwanda and Cambodia, computing students brought solar energy to villages previously without electricity. Also in Cambodia, optometry students started a project to test the eyesight of children, many of whom suffer HIV-related vision problems.
“When I visited Cambodia, I saw that 80 or so students had actually already done their service learning programme and fulfilled the requirements of their course, but had paid out of their own pocket to come back again,” said Professor Tong, who described the initiative as a “life-changing experience” for students.
Reflecting on the switch to four-year courses and the inclusion of service learning, Professor Tong said initially he “was not sure how successful it would be”, but that the “first cohort is graduating and we are achieving the results we want”.
Calling the switch to four-year degrees a “change of a lifetime”, Professor Tong argued that students and society will benefit from having more globally aware and socially engaged graduates.
“We want to produce graduates who are socially responsible when they come to the professional world,” he explained. “We want to open their minds and we think this will help with our future.”