Hong Kong's Universities Decide Bigger Is Better

By LIZ GOOCH

Universities in Hong Kong are counting down toward one of the most significant transformations ever attempted in the territory’s higher education sector, and the logistics are daunting: thousands of extra students, hundreds of new lecturers, realms of new curricula to write and hours of additional courses to fill.

The universities must find space, in what is already one of the world’s most densely populated cities, to accommodate all of the new classrooms, laboratories, staff offices and dormitories that will be required.

At a time when universities in many Western countries are pinching budgets, Hong Kong’s are gearing up for a massive expansion of the undergraduate population: Starting in the 2012 academic year, all Hong Kong undergraduate degrees will be extended from three years to four.

The changes mean that students will spend one less year in high school before embarking on a revamped four-year undergraduate curriculum.

“It’s unprecedented for an entire university system to move from a three-year program to a four-year program,” said Gerard Postiglione, a professor of education at the University of Hong Kong.

Universities say the extra year will give them the opportunity to provide students with a more rounded, liberal education, akin to the U.S. approach.

Education experts, who have widely welcomed the changes, say the move reflects Hong Kong’s ambitions to produce innovative graduates who are well-equipped to secure the city’s place in the global economy.

Previously, most students completed seven years of high school before applying to college. Under the new system, known as 3+3+4, all students will complete three years of both junior and senior high school and at about the age of 18 be eligible to pursue a four-year university degree.

But during the transition period universities will have to deal with a “double cohort” of students. About 30,000 new students will flood into the universities in September 2012, as the first students taught under the six-year high school curriculum embark on four-year degrees, while the last group of students to complete seven years of high school start the final batch of three-year degrees.

The government also plans to give more students who have completed associate degrees or diplomas the opportunity to complete an undergraduate degree. The number of places available for these students to join the third year of an undergraduate program will double to 4,000 by the 2014 academic year.

The government has earmarked several sites that it plans to make available for development by private colleges and the privately financed arms of public institutions, but universities are already constructing new classrooms, laboratories and dormitories.

The University of Hong Kong, which celebrates its centenary this year, is building a new campus that will increase its space by 20 percent. The government is financing about half of the development and the university is raising money for the remainder.

“We want to build for the future, not just 2012,” said the deputy vice-chancellor, Roland Chin.

Construction is under way at campuses across Hong Kong, but concerns remain that there may not be enough space or facilities by 2012.

Students are also concerned about the shortage of dormitory rooms in Hong Kong, where rents are among the highest in Asia and land is sparse. The shortage deprives local students of the chance to live on campus and is a barrier to attracting more international students.

Hoiki Ho, acting general secretary of the University of Hong Kong Students’ Union, said more dormitory spaces were needed because it was often difficult to find affordable housing close to the university.

Mr. Chin said the University of Hong Kong hoped to offer 1,800 new dormitory spaces by 2012, on top of the existing 4,700, but he acknowledged that that would still not satisfy demand.

“We are working with the government to find land so that we can build more dormitories,” he said.

And with some of the larger universities looking to hire up to 200 new staff members each, a global search for academics is in full swing.

Existing staff have welcomed the move to four-year degrees, but some are concerned about staffing during the transition period, said K.C. Cheung, chairman of the Academic Staff Association of the University of Hong Kong.

Mr. Cheung said that while universities were hiring for the long-term increase of 15,000 students some staff members were concerned that they may be required to take on more teaching responsibilities during the transition.

Infrastructure issues aside, administrators and academics said they believed that the most important challenge will be deciding how best to fill students’ additional year on campus.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revamp the curriculum,” said Kenneth Young, a deputy chancellor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Ultimately, one of the most important things is to use this opportunity to change the way education is delivered from a very traditional, didactic mode to a much more student-directed mode.”

Each university has the freedom to decide its own curriculum, but the overall trend is toward a more multidisciplinary approach in which students will be required to take more general education subjects. At the University of Hong Kong, for example, students will be required to take six common core courses that cover globalization, China, science and technology and the humanities, plus English and Chinese courses.

“We’ve taken this opportunity to review the entire undergraduate curriculum and ask ourselves what do we need to do so that we produce graduates who will be able to meet the challenges posed by globalization,” said Amy Tsui, pro vice-chancellor and vice president for teaching and learning.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will adopt a similar approach, with students required to take core subjects in arts and humanities, social analysis, science and technology, quantitative reasoning, English and Chinese communication, and a healthy-lifestyle course.

Walter Yuen, vice president for academic development at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said universities were working with high schools to gain a better understanding of how they could help students move smoothly into higher education.

“I think it’s reasonable to expect that in some aspects they will lack academic knowledge compared to the previous years because they have one less year,” he said.

Despite the many challenges, Simon Marginson, a professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, said he believed Hong Kong was making the right changes.

“It’s now very well placed to be a player at the world level,” he said.

Mr. Postiglione, head of the policy, administration and social sciences division at the University of Hong Kong’s education faculty, said the move will further bolster a system that already has four highly ranked universities. “In many ways I think Hong Kong is, in terms of university systems, becoming very much the Boston of the East,” he said.