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Fewer Hong Kong school pupils opt for science subjects, endangering government bid to boost technology sector

Critics blame the reformed education system which they say places greater emphasis on arts subjects; meanwhile universities are now offering catch-up courses to science students

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 7:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 10:40am

Hong Kong’s government-funded secondary schools have seen drastically fewer students opting for science subjects, raising concern over the impact this may have on the government’s plan to boost innovation and technology in the city.

Ironically, the reason for the decline may lie at the door of another government policy – changes to the school system and the introduction of a new examination, the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE).

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The Post found four electives – physics, chemistry and two maths subjects – were among the worst-hit subjects, with the percentage of pupils taking them down as much as a half since 2012.

Scholars and educators believe a more art-heavy and demanding curriculum after education reforms in 2009 discouraged students from pursuing science at the secondary level.

In reaction to the development, university science faculties, noting that students did not have a good enough grounding in the subject, started to offer courses to allow them to catch up with the basics.

To boost the city’s technology development, the government set up an Innovation and Technology Bureau. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his policy address this year a HK$2 billion fund to encourage investment in start-ups, on top of a HK$500 million fund to finance innovation projects.

But educators say students’ weaker ability in science is affecting the government’s grand plan of a hi-tech future.

“The problem will have a far-reaching impact on Hong Kong’s innovation and technology development,” said Dr Eric Liu Sai-lok, principal of the Institute of Vocational Education. “Everybody can innovate, but when you want to turn an innovation into a product, you will often need science students.”

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Industry practitioners are also worried about the trend. Eric Cheung Chun-lam, who founded food waste recycling and design startup Run 2 Tree Creations, said many science students were unwilling to engage in innovation and technology development after they graduated because they made more money through property and finance.

“It’s really unhealthy,” he said. “It’s really difficult for me to hire people locally. Now many start-ups are actually founded by Hongkongers returning from overseas.”

The education reform changed the previous seven-year secondary and three-year university system to six years in secondary and four years in university.

The change was followed in 2012 by a switch to the DSE from the previous Advanced Level Examinations (A-levels).

The Post compared DSE statistics over the years and found that the percentages of students taking science subjects dropped the most among all subjects since 2012.

Extended maths in calculus and statistics (M1), extended maths in algebra and calculus (M2), physics and chemistry were among the worst-hit subjects, with the drop ranging from 22 per cent in chemistry to almost half in M1 by last year.

Wong Hak-lim, vice chairman of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said the new secondary curriculum, with one year less than the previous one, added liberal studies and mathematics as mandatory subjects, on top of Chinese language and English language, meaning there were three art and only one science subject in the core curriculum.

When it came to university admission, Wong said, the previous system required students in the science stream to just pass the mandatory art subjects to get into science undergraduate programmes, while the current one, which no longer divides high school classes into science and art streams, required students who were better in science not only to pass the art subjects but to excel in them.

This meant students with greater talent in science now had to devote more time preparing their art subjects, leaving them less time for electives.

As a result, they increasingly gave up on science electives, which are generally believed to be more difficult than art courses, said Wong, who is also a maths teacher and vice principal of Buddhist Ho Nam Kam College in Yau Tong.

Universities’ science faculties, realising this, had to lower their requirements to attract students, Wong said, which was why some programmes required candidates to take just one science elective instead of two or three, while others took science electives as a preference instead of taking them as obligatory courses. This meant even fewer incentives for students to take science electives.

“The system is really biased against students who want to focus on developing a specific talent,” he said, suggesting the government should make the core curriculum less demanding and allow universities greater flexibility in deciding admission requirements for students with different talents.

Information technology sector lawmaker Charles Mok said the DSE system required students to devote much more time to core subjects than under the previous system, limiting their ability to take electives.

Mok added that many top students chose finance and business-related university programmes due to Hong Kong’s “over-reliance” on the finance sector. This was why many companies in the IT sector were complaining about a shortage of talented people, he said.

“The biggest problem facing innovation and technology development is not money, but people,” said Mok. “And the DSE is the biggest man-made problem causing the shortage of people.”

The University of Hong Kong’s dean of science, Professor Pauline Chiu, said the university had introduced science foundation courses for students to catch up on their maths and science fundamentals, after realising that new students were weaker in scientific knowledge since the introduction of the DSE.

A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau said the current system had struck a balance between building strong foundation knowledge across the board and catering to students’ personal interests. She said the bureau would gauge comments and suggestions from stakeholders as part of an ongoing curriculum review.

The bureau had been promoting science, technology, engineering and maths education in primary and secondary schools by providing more after-class learning opportunities such as competitions, exhibitions and projects that apply science in daily life, she said.

Spokespersons from the eight publicly funded universities and institutions all said the relaxation of admission policies was in line with the education system change that no longer divided secondary students into art or science streams, in the hope of exposing them to a wider range of academic areas and giving them more freedom in applying for university programmes.

They said different faculties could use the extra year to help students catch up with knowledge in their special areas.