We’re witnessing a revolution here.
No, there’s not a movement rising up to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party. The revolution is here in Hong Kong and it’s happening in public education. It’s the reason I’m here, actually. It’s truly breathtaking what is being attempted.
Until now, Hong Kong has used a British model for primary, secondary and university education. A holdover from the period of British rule here, the system consists of a required six years of primary school (generally preceded by kindergarten) followed by five years of secondary school. After these eleven years of school, students take a standardized test. About 35% of students pass this test and move on to take two additional years of secondary school. After this, students take the infamous A-Level Exam and a select few—about 20% of the total age cohort—are admitted to university. These universities, like those in Britain, mainly offer narrowly-focused three-year degree programs.
In Hong Kong, the major providers of higher education are the eight public universities. Private colleges are minor players and inferior in quality to the publics. Students who pass their A-Levels are given a free ride. The government pays. The level of public support for higher ed here is remarkable. Hong Kong funds about 80% of university operations (the state provides less than 20% at UMass Dartmouth), and money is ample. It’s really nice to be around universities with more resources than they know how to use.
About ten years ago, the big thinkers and leaders in Hong Kong realized this system was not working. Learning was focused on rote memorization and students failed to pick up key skills like critical thinking, problem solving and independent learning. Employers found HK graduates were not able to perform as well as employees who had graduated from American universities that focused on providing a liberal education. In a globalizing world, Hong Kong was starting to lose its edge.
So, the government decided to take a bold step to do something about it. They decided to comprehensively revamp the entire system of secondary and higher education. Not incremental change, tinkering around the edges. We’re talking a complete revolution.
Under the new plan, dubbed 3-3-4, students go on to a compulsory six-year secondary school program after completing primary school (three years of lower secondary, three years of upper secondary, hence the 3-3). This aligns them with the American K-12 model. After this, all students take a new test to determine admission to a university. Those admitted then matriculate into a new four-year university program, just like in the US.
Importantly, though, the change is intended to do more than just move the last year of school to the first year of university. Key to the changes is an entirely new curriculum focused on liberal studies at the school level and liberal education at the university level. The curriculum focuses on whole-person development, life-long learning, interdisciplinarity and integrated knowledge. It aims to foster intellectual skills and capacities, rather than just force memorization.
At the university level, this new curriculum has meant the introduction of new general education programs or comprehensive overhauls of existing ones. Rather than highly-focused three-year programs focused on specific career training, the new four-year programs have core courses, distribution requirements, foreign language study and structured choices for electives. (And this is why I’m here: the Fulbright program I’m part of is bringing American scholars with expertise in general education to Hong Kong over the four years leading into the launch of the new curriculum.)
As you can see, these changes represent a major disruption to the social equilibrium. Social changes of this scope usually involve violence and bloodshed! Though it appears peaceful so far, there is plenty of tension among faculty and administrators; mild violence at a faculty meeting at some point would not be entirely surprising. (I’m only partly joking.)
In all seriousness, one has to be impressed by the vision and guts to pull this off. The complications are immense. For instance, next year when the change begins, in addition to offering an entirely new curriculum, universities will also have a “double cohort.” The freshmen class will consist of a regular batch of 3-2-2-3 students coming in after 13 years of school and a new batch of 3-3-4 students coming in after 12. This represents a 33% increase in the size of their student bodies. And they’re taking two different curricula! Admissions and registrar staff are quite busy. Faculty are hiring like there’s no tomorrow. (Want a job teaching in HK? Plenty of new lines being created right now!)
Hong Kongers can only hope that when the dust settles, the new equilibrium will be better than the old one. It’s difficult to predict the outcome for a change of this magnitude. Murphy’s Law and the Law of Unintended Consequences will almost certainly have some say. But, the people of Hong Kong are resourceful and extremely hardworking—a natural resource-poor country doesn’t become the 13th wealthiest in GDP per capita with a dim and lazy population. For this reason, I have high expectations for this revolution.