International student Maximilian Barth had a big surprise when he started his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong last summer. Despite his choice of courses for a politics major, he was told to make room for two 'core courses' from a menu of 67, a new requirement for first-year students.
The choices - including Girl Power in a Man's World, Genetics and Human Nature, Feeding the World and Global Citizenship - are part of HKU's common core curriculum, which will be the centrepiece of its four-year degree to be launched next year.
By then, first-year students will be required to take six core courses, which account for 36 of the 240 credits needed for graduation. They will have to choose at least one and not more than two from each of four areas of inquiry: scientific and technological literacy; humanities; global issues; and China: culture, state and society.
Cross-disciplinary in nature and inquiry-based, the specially designed courses are meant to be more intellectually challenging than the average general education course. They are the result of vigorous vetting by a 16-member committee. HKU academics have put forward more than 200 course proposals since 2009.
'We spent hours and hours debating in vetting the proposals,' says the committee's chairwoman, Professor Amy Tsui Bik-may, the university's pro-vice chancellor (teaching and learning).
The core courses aim to broaden students' understanding of the world and equip them for degree study. 'First-year students find themselves in a new environment and are at a different stage of learning when they will be challenged by a lot of ideas,' says Tsui.
'It is also the stage that shapes their views of the world and their approaches to intellectual inquiry. You really need very good professors to do that - to inspire them - and international research has shown that if students have a good learning experience in the first year, they will do well in the rest.'
Barth, who is from Germany, finished two core courses - one on globalisation and migration, the other on catastrophes, cultures and the 'angry earth'. He has mixed feelings about the curriculum. Many classmates in one core course simply fell asleep during the lecture, he says, and making core courses compulsory was rather 'paternalistic'.
'Thanks to the lecturer of the core course I took last semester, it did make me a little bit more open-minded, but probably most other [undergraduate] courses would have done that, too,' he says. 'I would not say the core curriculum has a unique effect.'
However, Barth appreciates learning together with a wider mix of students. 'You become less prejudiced, a lot more humble and careful because you have met people from many different ethnic, national, religious backgrounds. They voice many opinions that you usually would not come up with.'
To add to the intellectual rigour of the new core courses, HKU also decided that virtually all of them would be taught by professorial-grade staff. Besides lectures, each course also includes tutorials to facilitate interaction between students and professors. Assessment is based on activities such as field work, movie-making, group presentations and making a website. The rich experience that some professors bring to their teaching has been inspiring to some students.
During her Science of Crime Investigation course, psychology major Diana Wong says she was gripped by a medical professor's account of being called to a crime scene for an on-site examination.
French and journalism major Karthie Lee was delighted to befriend transgendered people and homosexuals in Hong Kong through the course Sexuality and Diversity.
'I loved it better than the other one I took, as we could meet with marginalised people, have real contact with them instead of learning from books,' she says. 'Our professor has done a lot of research on transgender issues. He invited many guest speakers to our class.'
Although some fellow classmates dozed off, Priyanjali Jain, an economics and finance major, says she was excited about her choices and is now pondering switching to a combined major in economics and politics after taking the course Problems of the Third World.
Jain says the core courses are more interactive than others, and how they were delivered mattered more than who taught them. 'Often very experienced academics may not be the best teachers because they may not know how to transmit their knowledge to you. Other people [who are] less qualified may explain things very well,' she says.
HKU's reforms are part of the switch to four-year degrees, which require a broader foundation in the first year because students are starting university a year earlier, and similar changes are planned by other publicly funded universities in Hong Kong. But the reforms also mirror growing efforts by institutions worldwide to strengthen the undergraduate curriculum to produce the right graduates for the 21st century.
'Everybody is [trying] to make graduates more competitive,' says Tsui. 'It's not about giving them more disciplinary knowledge. It is about how to get them to open up and develop the skills to learn on their own, because no matter how much you give them, it's only four years.'
Tsui says it is also important to develop local students' critical perspectives, to help them better cope with the changing world. 'Even in the field of education, there are new ideas all the time, new paradigms, new perspectives of looking at things, so you are constantly learning. We want our students to ask questions, and this is why the tutorial [for core courses] is a must. We want to get students to ask, address each others' questions.'
HKU's new curriculum will continue to evolve as new issues crop up. A review is due in 2014, and the four areas of inquiry will be assessed in 2016. Another key aspect of HKU's four-year curriculum, already required by some faculties, is experiential learning, in which students connect with the real world through internships, overseas exchanges and similar activities.
The curricular reforms reflect the erosion of the traditional boundaries between town and gown that formerly confined academics to their ivory towers. 'Twenty years down the road, the focus of learning will not [just] be here,' says Tsui. 'It will be on the university and the community.'