by Katherine Forestier
Katherine Forestier is an international associate of the Leadership Foundation and co-directed the International Leadership Development Programme (ILDP) visit to Hong Kong and Guangzhou in November, 2013
“Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies. It creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation.”
Stephanie Pace Marshall’s quote not only captures the drive for transformation behind University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) new four-year curriculum, but the ambition of Hong Kong’s wider education reforms that it is responding to.
The butterfly analogy made a huge impression on the UK participants in the recent International Leadership Development Programme held in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, co-directed by Professor Jim Yip, director of special projects at the University of Salford.
During the programme the group witnessed the outcomes of more than a decade of carefully planned and interlocking reforms that are now affecting every level of education in the former British colony – from what children should learn from pre-school onwards, to the phasing in of new four-year undergraduate degree programmes that from 2012 is replacing the old, three-year English model.
And in Guangzhou they saw a no less ambitious a transformation, in the form of new campuses emerging from bare ground for newer universities such as Guangzhou Polytechnic Normal University (GPNU) and Guangzhou Maritime Institute (GMI). These are playing a key role in extending access needed for China to achieve its target of expanding its higher education enrolment rate from 24.2 per cent in 2009, to 40 per cent by 2020.
The scale of the Hong Kong reforms, how they are being led at policy and institutional levels, and some inevitable tensions, became evident during meetings with policy makers and academics at the cutting edge of change.
What was notable to the ILDP participants was that in each of the visits, the focus of discussion returned to education – what it should be, and how this could be delivered, assured, and measured. Universities were seen to have run with the policy decision to increase undergraduate courses from three to four years and were now enjoying the luxury of time to give students a more rounded learning experience akin to American liberal arts traditions.
Despite the challenge of having a double cohort of students proceed through the system between 2012 and 2015, they are also making impressive use of the physical spaces built to accommodate the extra year of students. This was seen most dramatically in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s state of the art library, with its varied learning spaces and blending of arts, sciences and nature in its design, digital and physical collections, exhibits, and inspirational sea-cum-mountain views.
Gwyn Edwards, director of HKU’s new Common Core Curriculum, shared some insight into the thinking behind the extra year. It could quite easily have been limited to the remedial function of bringing students up to speed in academic subjects after they had left school one year younger in the new academic structure, at age 17 to 18 rather than 18 to 19 – adding wings to that caterpillar.
Instead, it had been grasped as an opportunity to transform the curriculum, in the spirit of the wider education reforms that aim to enhance the critical and creative thinking, and global outlook of young people.
Under the new structure, the fact that students are starting university one year earlier has not been a major issue, because of the time lost under the previous model in preparing for multiple public examinations instead of the single Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education now phased in. In addition, students under the new system are showing early signs of being better motivated and prepared for university in the learning skills and attitudes the new school curriculum helps them develop.
At HKU, aims of the reforms were well understood by its pro vice-chancellor, Professor Amy Tsui, whose academic background is in curriculum studies, and was charged with leading the change.
ILDP4 participants and programme director Jim
Yip (left) at Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong
The compulsory Common Core Curriculum, along with English and Chinese language learning, account for about 12 per cent of HKU’s new curriculum, while the extra year also enables the majority of students to participate in exchanges and other study abroad experiences, and credit-bearing experiential learning projects.
A multidiscipline approach is at the heart of the new curriculum, at HKU and other universities. For HKU’s Common Core, students can choose from more than 160 courses across four interlinked Areas of Inquiry – Scientific and Technological Literacy, Humanities, Global Issues, and China: Culture, State and Society – and are expected to take at least one from each.
Academics in Hong Kong face similar pressures to their UK counterparts in balancing teaching and research. So when the call for proposals for Common Core courses was launched, many predicted only a handful would be submitted. Instead, Edwards received 240 for the first 60. Academics, he said, had welcomed the opportunity to teach something that they were genuinely interested in, beyond their discipline, “exploring issues of profound significance to humankind”.
In Hong Kong, discussions are refreshingly frank. No one hides the challenges faced, and the fact that work is still in progress in achieving educational aims of the reforms. Many parents remain unconvinced and continue to send their children overseas, for school and undergraduate education, confirmed in data on the increasing number of Hong Kong students studying in the UK.
Hong Kong China
The visit took place at a time of noticeable tension over Hong Kong’s political future and accelerating integration with China – what could be summed up as its biggest identity crisis since the change of sovereignty in 1997. This is reflected in public angst about the crowds of shoppers from mainland China buying up everything from luxury apartments to the city’s supplies of baby milk formula.
Universities, meanwhile, are questioning just how many mainland students they should recruit and how to ensure they can happily integrate with their local and international peers. The current limit for non-local students is 20 per cent for publicly-funded undergraduate places, but at postgraduate level there are no quotas and the ratio is much higher than that. The challenges in building genuine intercultural understanding and friendships as an outcome of internationalisation were as evident in Hong Kong universities as the UK.
While Hong Kong’s higher education is now irrevocably linked to China through the mainland presence in Hong Kong and expansion of Hong Kong universities through research centres and new branch campuses across the border, key differences remain. Delegates saw policies being implemented that arose, in general, from extensive consultation and collaboration, between policy-makers, educators and the wider community, something one UK participant noted was easier in a small system.
In contrast, in China the GNPU and GMI plans for growth and reform closely mirrored the top-down National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), in both curriculum priorities – moral education comes first – and targets for growth.
Participants talked of being inspired by what they had seen, in particular the focus on student learning and the broader curriculum in Hong Kong, and the burgeoning growth of both economy and higher education in mainland China. This was contrasted by what was described as a narrower, linear, more functional approach in England, and funding concerns.
One participant noted that Hong Kong did not need to worry about funding issues, given its budget surplus. Yet the reforms have had a long gestation, with the first soul-searching born out of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Planning for that costly fourth year was not interrupted by further economic crises when the SARS infection ground Hong Kong to a halt in 2003, nor during the recession sparked by the global financial crisis of 2008.
Where there is a will for a new purpose in education, there may be a way. Or as Edwards cited, the butterfly can only fly if it dares to leave the safety of its cocoon.
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