The unfinished homework

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2005, 12:00am

In the debate on proposed reforms of the structure and curriculum of senior secondary and university courses, one issue that has not received as much attention as it should is how they would impinge on the admission requirements of tertiary courses.

While the universities have endorsed the general direction of reform and want the three-three-four structure - three years of junior secondary, three years of senior secondary school and four-year university courses - to be adopted as soon as possible, they have yet to fully embrace the proposed changes to the curriculum of the senior secondary course.

Apart from saying they intend to accept liberal studies as a new core subject, the universities, especially those with highly specialised professional programmes, have said very little on whether they like the idea of secondary students taking just two to three electives.

The issue is critical, however. At present, students are streamed from secondary four. Besides studying three core subjects - English, Chinese and maths, they take three to four elective subjects from the science, arts or commerce stream.

At the sixth-form stage, the range of subjects further narrows to English, Chinese language and culture, and three electives. The four most popular electives for science students are physics, chemistry, biology and maths, because professional programmes such as engineering and medicine require prospective students to have passed two or three subjects from this range.

If the professional programmes stuck to their rigid requirements, it would certainly undermine an important objective of the reforms - banning early specialisation at the secondary level and encouraging students to take a broader range of subjects.

Indeed, critics have noted that unless the universities relax their admission requirements, secondary students will continue to be streamed.

What if integrated science were introduced as a senior secondary subject to replace three subjects - physics, chemistry and biology? What if the universities then took on the responsibility of equipping their prospective students with more specialised knowledge of the three subjects in the first year of their extended four-year courses?

What if a modular system were introduced at the senior secondary level so that schools could offer a wider range of subjects that do not take three years to complete? These options have been floated to address the issue, but have so far generated little discussion.

As it is, there is apparently no dialogue between secondary schools and the universities on how their curriculums will dovetail. Joint statements issued by the universities so far have also suggested that they have yet to reach a consensus on admission requirements.

While urging the early implementation of the three-three-four model, it is time the universities engage the community in a discussion on how they could help secondary schools achieve the desired goal of providing students with a broad-based education.

As the secondary curriculum becomes less specialised, the universities should be prepared to do more to train their students. Overseas, it is not uncommon for students with no prior knowledge of subjects required for admission into specialised programmes to take foundation courses at university to qualify for admission. That has to be the way forward for our universities.

It would be real progress if, in the future, a student who has missed out on taking, say, physics, at secondary school could still enrol in an engineering programme by taking physics 101 after being admitted to university.

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy