Old school's out as Hong Kong shifts to US model

More funding, hiring bonanza and four-year degrees all part and parcel of reform. John Morgan reports

March 31, 2011

A government keen to pump funding into universities, helping them prepare for a 30 per cent increase in student numbers by hiring large numbers of extra staff: what sounds like an impossible dream for most Western universities is the reality in Hong Kong.

The territory is gearing up for the next stage of major education reform across its schools and its seven universities. This will involve a switch from its British-style higher education model to one more akin to that of the US.

In 2012, Hong Kong's universities will shift from offering three-year degrees to broader four-year courses, necessitating a big injection of public funding to cope with the extra student numbers.

Walter Yuen, Hong Kong Polytechnic University's vice-president (academic development), is well placed to note the contrast between university life in East and West. He emigrated from Hong Kong to California when he was 14 and became an engineering professor and chair of the academic senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

As Professor Yuen approached retirement age, the opportunity to become involved in the Hong Kong reforms drew him to Hong Kong Polytechnic, where he is in charge of the switch to the new curriculum.

Student numbers are expected to rise by 30 per cent and the university will hire 100 extra staff to cope.

"Certainly there is a contrast coming from the US," Professor Yuen acknowledged.

The University of California system, where he studied and worked, is presently facing substantial cuts in state funding, accompanied by further tuition-fee rises.

"Unlike most parts of the world, universities in Hong Kong do not have a problem with funding," Professor Yuen said. "When a government is in this situation, I think there is an obligation to make things better."

Steve Tsang, senior research Fellow in modern Chinese studies at the University of Oxford, argued that Hong Kong "has to invest in higher education because the only 'natural resources' it has to offer are human resources".

The new curriculum at Hong Kong Polytechnic will require every student to fulfil substantial reading and writing requirements in both English and Chinese. They will also be expected to undertake community work, which will be assessed as part of their final degree marks.

Hong Kong is abandoning its equivalents to GCSE and A-level qualifications and switching to a single school-leaving exam. Secondary school education will be shortened by a year and an extra year will be added to undergraduate study.

In 2012, universities face a double cohort comprising the last pupils from the old school system and the first from the new one. This will be a shock for institutions, Professor Yuen said, and the shift will place additional burdens on the first students to study under the new system.

"Frankly, there is a concern that a lot of students will not want to deal with this transition and will just go direct to the UK or Australia," he added.

But Professor Tsang said that by switching to the US model of university education, Hong Kong will find it easier to harmonise its system with China's.

"The Chinese really are looking more to the Americans than to the UK model," he said.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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