Young minds, fresh out of the box
Just months away from the launch of four-year degrees in September, Hong Kong universities have made great strides in developing new courses and faculties for an expanded curriculum that aims to produce graduates who can adapt and effectively respond to a fast-changing world.
Under the four-year curriculum - the final stage of the 3+3+4 academic structure reform - students can expect a heavy dose of general education in their first two years, choosing from a potentially mind-boggling mix of electives on top of compulsory courses. For most students, and excepting those enrolled for professional degrees such as medicine or law, admissions will be faculty or programme based, and they won't need to declare a major till the second year.
The change underlies the major goal of the education reform launched a decade ago - to nurture graduates' all-round development. And such a target has never been more important. Institutions not just in Hong Kong, but in the region, including Singapore and the mainland, have attached increased importance to university education that fosters creativity. General education serves the same purpose as that championed by traditional liberal arts institutions in the United States. 'In the early 1900s, as university education in the US became specialised, people said we had gone too far and left the old tradition of learning behind, so the call for general education emerged,' says Professor Reza Hoshmand, director of general education at Baptist University, who is among a team of Fulbright Scholars brought to the city by the Hong Kong-America Centre to help institutions carry out the reform.
'On top of professional degrees such as engineering, law, you provide some kind of a broad-based education to let students define themselves, and to see the connection between their study and the rest of the world.'
Regionally, Hong Kong leads the way in nurturing graduates with broad knowledge and skills, though Yale University is helping the National University of Singapore set up the island state's first liberal arts college, called Yale-NUS College, due to open next year.
Despite opposition from some Yale faculty members against collaboration with a nation that is far from liberal, the new college is seen as a model of education that, as put by Yale president Richard Levin, offers a 'broader perspective on the complex problems of the world'.
Universities in Hong Kong are ready to roll out a huge number of non-specialist courses, many of which are interdisciplinary. City University will require students to take 30 credits in GE (general education) courses, out of a pool of 150 options. The University of Hong Kong boasts 150 courses under its common core curriculum.
Baptist University has come up with 235. Among the compulsory courses are public speaking (in Cantonese, Putonghua and English), physical education, numeracy, information management technology, history and civilisation, in addition to university Chinese and English. Students will also need to complete another 12 credits in any of the following areas: arts, business, communication/visual arts, and science/Chinese medicine. Class sizes will be limited to 50 to facilitate discussions.
Students will be required to take 38 credits of GE courses out of the total 120 credits required for the completion of a four-year degree. While each institution has it own course menu, Hoshmand speaks strongly against early specialisation.
'Hong Kong people are tunnel-visioned. Parents decide very early on that their son is going to be a doctor or engineer. In the US, we allow our students to choose, to go and find their own niche. That's how the creativity comes through. It does not come by forcing somebody do something they do not have a passion for,' says Hoshmand, an economist by training, whose first degree is in genetic science.
But teaching pedagogy is crucial to the success of the curriculum reform, he adds.
'One difference between the new and the old system is the pedagogy of the GE courses. They are different from traditional introductory courses. We want students to have lots of discussions, interactions with teachers, and reflect on things, write things, and not just sit, memorising things.
'You need to have teachers who are not only very good in their own discipline but have the capability of standing in front of a class of five or 500 people and get the students' attention. They are exceptional teachers whether in a lecture hall or with a small number of students. The problem in Hong Kong is most of the faculty ... did their undergraduate education in an environment that did not have liberal education. They memorised everything.'
To prepare for the change, Fulbright scholars have staged workshops and seminars for faculty from various institutions on effective teaching in a large and small-class environment and how to handle various classroom scenarios. The scholars are experts in their own field of study as well as exceptional teachers.
'Some of the seminars we did were very eye-opening to some members of the faculty,' says Hoshmand, the former associate dean of graduate studies and chair of business and management at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire.
He is also concerned about departments that put research before teaching.
'Even the person with the passion for teaching gets pushed into research that may not be top-notch. The question now is to push those who are very good at what they do. I have been trying to find out where staff interests lie and how I can pull them out to teach GE courses.'
But the challenge facing China is much more daunting. Efforts are being made, albeit on a much smaller scale, to broaden students' education and thinking. Chen Weiming, the founder of what is billed as the mainland's first liberal arts college, Xing Wei College, in Shanghai, sees an urgent need to produce graduates who can think out of the box. Recruitments are now under way for the college opening in September.
On the site of a former cash-strapped privately run college which he bought in 2005, Chen is zealous about creating an educational model that mirrors his own experience. Born into an intellectual family - his mother was a top scientist who did research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his father a renowned brain surgeon - he was sent to an American high school in 1982, before moving on to Boston University and Harvard Business School. In his undergraduate days, Chen initially majored in biology, then switched to IT before discovering his passion for theology, philosophy and psychology. Knowledge in the latter helps with business management, he says. He worked for multinationals in China for years after his return in 1994.
The American influence is noticeable on Xing Wei's campus, not just in the curriculum but also in building design and hiring practice. Most of its faculty are recruited from the US. Its provost, Dr Douglas Treadway, is a visiting professor in leadership and education sciences at the University of San Diego, in the state of California.
The college runs two-year broad-based education programmes that are coordinated with degree programmes in the US. Those who want to remain in China can finish a three-year programme that leads to a tertiary albeit not degree qualification.
Chen sees his model as a much-needed alternative to a system that is corrupt, bureaucratic and far from inspiring. Most mainland universities, he laments, tend to produce what he calls 'technicians' rather than innovative thinkers.
'Looking forward you are not likely to have one job most of your life but change careers, industries or countries you live in. Liberal education more or less prepares you for the rest of your life, instead of preparing you for the first job - which is what most Chinese universities prepare students to do.
'Pretty much under the mainstream Chinese system, teachers are seen as the ones with the right answers. We want to introduce different ways of thinking. Almost 100 per cent of students in the system are trained to basically be technicians, not real scientists because they believe there is only one right answer.
'Liberal arts is great I think; in the US, people say there are too many such graduates and not enough technicians but it is the other extreme in China.'
The number of credits students must earn taking general education courses at Baptist University, out of 120 to graduate