Concerns raised over HKU’s ditching of maths-physics and astronomy degrees
The school says hardly anyone now takes astronomy and maths-physics degrees, but one scientist warns the university is neglecting its social responsibility
The scrapping of two unpopular science courses have sparked concerns from scientists, who argued such move would neglect its social responsibility.
The science faculty said it could no longer afford to offer two major subjects – astronomy and a joint degree in mathematics and physics – starting next year as too few students were choosing them. Less than six students had graduated in either course in the past five years.
It means that astronomy will no longer be available in the city as a major option.
The decision has sparked discussion on whether young people have lost interest in studying science and aspiring to be scientists, and whether educators should provide knowledge regardless of popularity.
A former director of the Hong Kong Observatory, Lam Chiu-ying, accused the school of “operating commercially” and failing in its teaching philosophy.
“A university has a social and cultural responsibility to nurture knowledge even if there is only one student who wants to learn about it,” Lam, who majored in maths and physics in the 1970s, said.
The combined course, he said, was once “the glory of the science faculty” as it offered the foundation knowledge of science.
“You can call me old-school, but I believe such core subjects should not be closed just because fewer people like them.”
In a separate interview with the Post, Professor Sun Kwok, an internationally renowned astronomer, further explained the importance of space science.
Kwok said he could not comment on the university’s decision due to his former role as the dean of science. But he said space science was not a dying subject.
“In fact, it is quite the opposite,” said Kwok, who is famous for his interacting-winds theory of 1978 about how stars evolved.
“We have to let Hong Kong society know there is huge potential and massive opportunities in astronomy, especially when China, a rapidly rising scientific power, has strong political will and commitment to pour resources into many aggressive space projects.”
President Xi Jinping has prioritised advancing the country’s space programme to enhance national security and defence.
Beijing plans to launch its first cargo spacecraft in April as it has set a goal of sending humans to the moon by 2020 and establishing a permanently manned space station by 2022.
He emphasised there was room for the city to take part in the “incredible” number of space projects in China – for example, in designing and developing software.
“The best way for us to join the club of advanced science countries is to take advantage of China’s ambitious plans,” said Kwok, who is also the president of commission on astrobiology at the International Astronomical Union, which is based in Paris.
“If we fail to grasp this opportunity, the role of Hong Kong science in China and the world will diminish.”
In reply to the Post, HKU said it routinely reviewed student demand to ensure the best possible learning experience and to make the best use of its resources. A spokeswoman said the change only affected those doing the combined maths-physics course, not those studying the subjects separately as majors.
HKU’s dean of science, Matthew Evans, explained that “students have simply voted with their feet”.
“We have an obligation to use the funds provided to us efficiently, and teaching niche programmes is I am afraid too inefficient and results in a waste of academic time that is better spent in increasing the quality of education for larger numbers of students,” Evans said.
An aspiring young scientist, Stark Chan Yik-hei, however, suggested it was possible that some traditional subjects might no longer fit fast-changing trends.
“It would be a good thing if the school is simply directing recourses to other science subjects to go with the international trend of development,” the 27-year-old entrepreneur said.
Chan is dubbed “son of the star” for having a minor planet named after him. He has also developed an intelligent robot. His company has complained of a lack of talent in the city as universities were too slow to provide skills in the latest research areas, such as nano technology.