Hong Kong schools

Arguments over liberal studies refuse to die down as educators call for controversial Hong Kong school subject to be made elective 

Educators suggest making subject elective and putting less focus on social and political issues – but that would only undermine pupils’ ability to think critically, others say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 May, 2018, 11:10am

Two Hong Kong educators on Sunday proposed revamping the controversial but compulsory liberal studies subject as an elective one that puts less focus on social and political issues.

But school principal Choi Kwok-kwong and union leader Wong Kwan-yu’s ideas were rejected by pro-democracy members of a discussion panel, who said the change would undermine pupils’ ability to think critically and from different perspectives.

“The subject’s goal is to make our young people responsible citizens with the ability to think from different perspectives … It would not be a compulsory subject if this goal was not important,” liberal studies teacher Cheung Yui-fai said during a discussion aired on television.

Liberal studies became compulsory in 2009 for Form Four to Six pupils seeking to take the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, or university admission, exams. The subject, which covers six modules including Hong Kong today, modern China and globalisation, was designed to encourage pupils to think critically about current affairs, rather than focusing on rote learning.

Carrie Lam dismisses speculation over changes to controversial liberal studies subject

But in recent years, pro-Beijing politicians have suggested that teachers were being allowed to impart their own political biases, resulting in students being “too critical” about the local or Beijing government and giving rise to a spate of political movements such as the Occupy protests for greater democracy in 2014.

The issue came under the spotlight last week with media reports suggesting that the government would consider making liberal studies an elective, pass-or-fail, subject. But the education minister clarified that a task force was still studying the issue and would only come up with recommendations next year.

Choi, an executive committee member of concern group Education Convergence, said on RTHK’s City Forum that students were “easily” pointed towards criticising the establishment or social order in liberal studies lessons nowadays.

“The subject also [deprives] students of the chance to choose one more elective subject … If it can be revived as an elective subject, the education profession can enjoy the autonomy to decide whether to offer [it in each school],” he added.

Students are required to choose one to three elective subjects for the DSE exam. Options include Chinese history, which some politicians and educators believe should be made compulsory instead.

Wong, president of the pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers and a former school principal, echoed Choi’s suggestion.

Don’t blame liberal studies curriculum for student activism

“Liberal studies was designed to meld arts with science, but it has inclined towards social issues … can we adjust it to enrich it?” he asked.

Cheung, director of education research at the pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union, said the subject should not become elective.

“Liberal studies does not need to be revamped … Teachers’ top demand regarding the subject was only to simplify it because they did not have enough time to teach [all six modules],” he said.

Cheung added that, according to a Chinese University survey, students said liberal studies helped them to have a deeper understanding of social issues.

Panel member Isaac Cheng Ka-long, a standing committee member of the Demosisto party and a university student, also urged the government not to reform liberal studies under pressure from mainland Chinese officials.

“Beijing officials had said that Hong Kong independence advocacies were related to education … but you must not blame education for students’ interest in current affairs,” he said.

“There are problems with society and the government, and students take action because they have a better understanding of how the society works.”