Broader minds the goal, narrow interest permitting
A key objective of education reform is to provide a more flexible, coherent and diversified senior secondary curriculum that suits the varied needs, interests and abilities of students. The success or failure of the exercise critically depends on how universities select their students. It is therefore encouraging to see that the universities have responded favourably to the challenge.
For too long, the range of subjects offered by schools has been dictated by university entrance requirements. Their rigid rules have encouraged the early streaming of students, who study only a narrow range of science, arts or commerce subjects from Form Four. The premature specialisation robs young minds of a broad-based education and ends up limiting their career choices and their ability to learn on their own.
From 2012, the new minimum entrance requirements for most university programmes will be four core subjects and one or two elective courses. In theory, this should give students more flexibility in deciding what to study from 2009, when the curriculum reform kicks in. By then, students are supposed to take two to three electives. That means they should be able to choose one or two of the electives freely, without having to worry that their choices will affect their chances of admission to their favourite programmes.
Whether the new requirements will encourage students to take a broader range of subjects remains to be seen. Universities will have to demonstrate that they are serious about recruiting students with broader knowledge. For example, it would help if the medical programme could show that a student who has done the traditional science subjects of chemistry, biology and physics will not necessarily stand a higher chance of being admitted than one who has done chemistry, economics and history.
Otherwise, students are likely to continue to choose a narrow range of subjects that they feel will help get them get into particular programmes. The reform's objective of eliminating streaming would be defeated.
Another factor that will impinge on the reform will be schools' readiness to co-operate to offer a really wide range of subjects. Last year, a survey by the Education and Manpower Bureau found that most schools would be able to offer 11 electives, of the 20 available. Only about half said they would offer Chinese literature and an abysmal 6 per cent English literature. Another half a dozen subjects also had few takers. The call to give our students a broader education will become a hollow slogan if schools put their parochial interests above the value of giving their students more choices through joint programmes.
Reforms have a tendency of going astray, with their unintended effects swamping their intended ones. The co-operation of all stakeholders is needed to keep the curriculum reforms on course.