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Liberal studies was introduced as mandatory for senior secondary students in 2009. Photo: Chan Ho-him

Hong Kong’s liberal studies to be renamed ‘citizenship and social development’ as part of massive overhaul

  • Other changes being floated include introduction of new elements on patriotism, national development and lawfulness
  • Subject for senior secondary school students has been blamed by pro-establishment lawmakers for encouraging violence among young people

Hong Kong’s controversial liberal studies subject will be renamed “citizenship and social development” with the revamped programme rolling out in September at the earliest, curriculum advisers announced on Wednesday.

The Curriculum Development Council, the government advisory body which decided on the new name, also endorsed earlier proposals that the senior secondary school subject would cover only three themes, namely Hong Kong, the nation, and the contemporary world, down from the existing six themes.

Modules to be scrapped include a section covering issues related to personal development and interpersonal relationships.

A month-long consultation with schools over the changes concluded early this month. Other names for the subject that were considered were “citizenship and nation”, “nationals and society”, “citizenship and culture” and “social studies”.

The next step requires the Education Bureau to accept the council’s recommendations and implement the changes for the 2021-22 academic year, which begins in September.

Other proposed changes to the subject include cutting teaching hours by half, and turning the compulsory assessment criteria into a simple pass or fail. 

A mini-thesis, which made up 20 per cent of the subject’s final grade, will be scrapped, while the revamp also calls for vetting all textbooks and requiring students to visit mainland China.

As part of the overhaul, the components on Hong Kong and the nation are expected to include the introduction of new elements on national security, patriotism, national development and lawfulness.

What is liberal studies in Hong Kong and why is it controversial?

A broader campaign to bring national security in line with the city’s education system, as required under the security law, was outlined in a set of sweeping guidelines issued by education authorities in February. Children as young as six will be required to learn the names of the four offences under the law: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Liberal studies was introduced in 2009 as one of four core subjects for senior secondary school students and was aimed at enhancing their social awareness and developing their critical thinking skills.

But the subject came under the spotlight in recent years as pro-establishment lawmakers and heavyweights blamed it for escalating violence among young people during the 2019 anti-government protests, while some teaching materials were labelled as biased.

Pupils in Hong Kong are expected to be studying the new subject by September. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Surveys by the city’s two biggest teachers’ unions show educators are divided over the overhaul, with 84 per cent of 273 liberal studies teachers polled by the Professional Teachers’ Union opposing any large-scale changes.

But 71 per cent of 263 teachers surveyed by the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers supported the reforms, with 61 per cent believing they could strengthen students’ positive values and their understanding of the country.

Tin Fong-chak, vice-president of the PTU, said the hasty overhaul of the subject was done not to the benefit of students but to reach a political end.

“The government and people from the pro-Beijing camp have made Hong Kong’s education system a scapegoat for the anti-government protests in 2019,” Tin said.

Principals’ group speaks out against calls to install CCTV in Hong Kong classrooms

Tin, who taught liberal studies for a decade, said he believed the changes were designed to undermine a pupil’s ability to critically examine the world and social issues. 

He was also concerned that the subject materials would be biased and paint China in a positive light, without giving students the freedom to criticise the nation and its policies. 

Meanwhile, Wong Kam-leung, chairman of the education workers union, backed the changes, which he said would “help students understand the nation’s development accurately”.

“Liberal studies has been a point of contention since it was introduced because it instilled in students the desire to criticise a lot of things,” he said. “I hope the new changes will eliminate the view that the subject is being politicised.”

But Wong, who called for training for teachers on the subject as soon as possible, admitted it would be difficult to get a divided education sector to work together and teach the revamped curriculum under the tight schedule proposed.