How Hong Kong universities can give students the best start in life and help fix the education system

Sun Kwok says we need to ensure that, on graduation, students have learned how to think for themselves and developed a habit of self-learning

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2016, 4:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2016, 4:52pm

After the publication of my article last month in the Post about the flaws in Hong Kong’s elementary and secondary education, I received several comments along these lines: “I agree that our education system has problems, but what can we do about it?” I work in the higher education sector, and I believe that universities can take steps to improve the current situation. Here are some possible solutions.

First, admit more students to university but allow some to fail

First, admit more students to university but allow some to fail. This solution addresses two problems: the overreliance on examination scores in determining admission and students’ unwillingness to learn in university. The current graduation rates at Hong Kong universities are close to 100 per cent. At the University of Hong Kong, students must have a grade point average (GPA) of less than 1.0 in two consecutive semesters to trigger a faculty review. This means that the student has to get a D or F in every course, which is nearly impossible unless one neglects completely to hand in assignments or turn up for exams. Even students who fail to meet this standard are often given second chances. If students know that they will graduate no matter what, they do not have much incentive to learn.

One reason for the reluctance to fail students is that universities receive block grants from the University Grants Committee based on student numbers. If we fail one student, the university receives less money. To address this problem, the committee should give block grants based on university performance – for example, using reviews of the academic development plans that universities submit every three years.

Set a lower limit on the number of students each university must enrol and let the universities decide how many more to take. I would propose that universities allow 10-25 per cent more students to enter – but also impose a higher performance standard on the students (requiring a minimum GPA of 1.5 or higher). Students who fail in one faculty can transfer to another faculty, to another publicly funded institution or to a private university, or they can drop out altogether. This approach is commonly practised in North American universities.

Under such a system, the students will take their studies more seriously and benefit much more from their university experience.

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Since the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) is such a competitive process, a higher entrance rate will allow students to focus less on exams and spend more time on other learning activities and academic pursuits. I also do not believe that the DSE is an accurate indicator of performance in university. Increasing enrolment will allow students who demonstrate strength in other areas, such as community leadership and entrepreneurial spirit, to obtain a university education.

Second, put more emphasis on reading and self-learning. When I taught in Canadian universities, teachers relied strongly on students to read. Almost all courses had a text book and supplementary materials, and students were expected to learn by reading on their own. In lectures, we pointed out the highlights.

When I started teaching at HKU, I was surprised to learn that most students do not buy the textbook, and when I asked them to read, I was often told that “it is too hard”. I later learned from my colleagues that local students do not read novels or plays in their English classes in high school. Instead, they read short passages and learn grammar points.

If this is true, then this practice clearly represents a deficiency in our secondary education and needs to be remedied at the university level. The reading habit must be encouraged, or, if necessary, enforced, so that students can develop the habit of self-learning that will sustain them after graduation.

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Third, promote more thinking, less memorisation: As I pointed out in a previous column, universities have been reforming their curriculums and classes are taught very differently than they are in secondary schools. For example, HKU created the common core curriculum and the science faculty instituted the science foundation courses to move away from rote learning.

If ‘tradition’ means students graduating without learning anything, we can no longer afford such ‘traditions’

We also have many academics from overseas, and they are much more familiar with an education system that promotes thinking skills. An HKU colleague told me that students had come up to him and asked, “So which parts do I need to memorise?” When he told them “Nothing”, he received complaints in student evaluations that his tests “required the use of logic” and were “unfair to the students”.

We need to stand behind this teacher for doing the right thing and tell students in no uncertain terms that they need to think at university.

After being embedded in the exam-driven and cram-school mentality for so long, it is difficult for our students to change their ways all of a sudden. Universities have to lead the way.

In my column in January, I said that students are not customers and teachers should not cater to what students want. Promotion and tenure should not be based on “customer satisfaction” but on how effectively the teacher instils thinking skills in the students.

Upon hearing these suggestions, some people express concerns that I may be tampering with “tradition”. If “tradition” means students playing in the halls and graduating without learning anything, my response is that we can no longer afford such “traditions”. Our graduates face global competition and companies can choose whether to hire someone with a degree from Hong Kong or elsewhere. World-leading organisations want employees who can learn and think on their own. If we do not reform, we will be left in the dust.

Sun Kwok is a chair professor of space science at the University of Hong Kong. He taught in Canada for 29 years before returning to Hong Kong in 2006. During his tenure (2006-2016) as dean of science at HKU, he reformed the HKU science curriculum to promote an all-person education