3-3-4 Academic Structure and Centennial Campus

Sheena Yap is a third year Bachelor of Journalism Student at the JMSC. She is Malaysian Chinese, but was born and brought up in Hong Kong.

Sheena Yap (BJ 2011)

As an Independent Study Project, Yap wrote a story about the changes coming to Hong Kong University in the form of both the Centennial Campus and the impending curriculum changes due to the move towards a 4 year university system.

Gene Mustain, Director of the JMSC’s Reporting and Writing Programme and Senior Teaching Consultant, singled this piece out as an example of an “excellent reporting job”.

Here is an edited version of her story:

Centenary and Beyond – by Sheena Yap

The University of Hong Kong passed a large milestone in its history this year – its 100th year of service to the world of education – and moved closer to completion of another big chapter in its development with continuing construction of its Centennial Campus. Over the last century, HKU has grown into the highest-ranked university in Asia, but its Vice-Chancellor, Tsui Lap-chee, sees even brighter days ahead.

“One day soon,” he proclaimed confidently, “our university will be the best in the world.”

Tsui went on to describe the Centennial Campus as the most ambitious development project in the university’s history. “It’s not just to celebrate the university’s centenary,” he said, while placing his hand on the foundation stone. “It’ll also be a lasting legacy for future generations of students and scholars.”

At a cost of more than HK$3 billion, the Centennial Campus will stand as a physical symbol of the university’s ambitious plan for research and big changes in student learning and development in the 21st Century. It is being built to the west of the existing campus, which is inadequate in many ways to serve the university’s present and future needs. Due for completion in early 2012, it will be home to new academic buildings and amenities totalling 42,000 net square metres.

The main reason [for the project] is the new “3-3-4” academic structure introduced by the government last year. The reform reduced secondary education by a year and lengthened tertiary education from three to four years. Its purpose is to give students more time to attain all-round development their during university years. Its implementation has created a far-reaching problem – the number of students for all eight of Hong Kong’s universities will double two years after its introduction.

The sharp increase in student numbers will be caused by the transition between the old and new academic structures. The first batch of students under the new scheme will emerge in 2012 – the same year as the last cohort of the old system enters university. The University of Hong Kong will have to admit an extra 3,000 students.

One of [the new] facilities will be the Learning Commons, the centrepiece of the Centennial Campus. Spread over three floors, the 6,000-square-meter collaborative learning space will provide seating for more than 2,000 people. The facility will represent a revolutionary change of learning experience – from teacher-oriented to student-oriented. It will not only provide quiet areas for self-study, but also ample places for group activities.

The facility will comprise three types of learning spaces. For individual learning, there will be reading areas and single computer workstations. This will enable students to access library materials and digital resources, and conduct research in a comfortable manner. For collaborative learning, there will be worktables in the form of diner booths designed to enhance group interactivity. In a more formal setting, tutorial rooms, electronic classrooms and lecture theatres will be available.

While the concept of the Learning Commons seems relatively new for people in Hong Kong, many overseas intuitions have already implemented the concept since the 1990s. One of them is the University of Southern California, which established its Information Commons in 1994. Over the last decade, an increasing number of universities in Europe have also renovated their libraries.

One of the highlights of the facility will be its 1,000-seat lecture theatre. With a main stage and acoustic properties, it will be an ideal venue for lectures, concerts as well as other performances. Another highlight will be its multi-purpose hall, which can be subdivided into four separate theatres, with each seating 250 people. The large open area with a high ceiling will be used for holding stage exhibitions and fairs.

With the new facilities, the Centennial Campus will certainly bring a great change in students’ learning experience. But, the campus expansion is not the only major change taking place in the university. It is also re-designing its curriculum – with a project to significantly extend both the length and breadth of study in the coming years.

HKU is not the only university implementing such reforms. Other universities in the territory are also introducing more new courses in preparation for the four-year curriculum in 2012. As the new curriculum aims to prepare students for the 21st century through whole-person development and lifelong learning, the universities are reviewing the content of what is taught within their degrees.

The University of Hong Kong has gone far beyond that – it has redefined the curriculum as the totality of learning experience which will be available for students throughout the tertiary education. “The curriculum reform is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Amy Tsui, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, who is leading the re-design. “It can enable us to critically reflect on the total learning experience which we should provide to our students.”

She went on to describe the reform as an “entire rethink” of the curriculum. “It’s not just about an extra-year of study,” she said. “It’s to deliberate on how our university can help students develop intellectual capabilities and professional skills, as well as nurture the core values of a responsible global citizen.”

To help students acquire these qualities, the university is set to introduce a suite of “Common Core courses” in addition to their degree disciplines. The courses will cover four areas of inquiry – humanities, global issues, scientific and technological literacy, and Chinese culture, state and society. These modules together will reflect and explore “common human experience”. Undergraduates will be required to take six courses from the multi-disciplinary curriculum during their first two years.

Besides the common core courses, the new degree will offer another significant innovation – “Experiential Learning” – by placing students in real-life situations. In fact, it is already a graduation requirement for students in the Faculty of Social Sciences. But, in 2012, it will be a fundamental part of all degrees in the university.

Experiential learning will enable students to learn from grappling with complex real-world problems by themselves. “But it’s not the same as work experience which students are simply given something to do,” said Amy Tsui, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning. “It’s about how they can learn to tackle novel situations and ill-defined problems from out-of-classroom and practical work.”

The new curriculum, however, is only part of the changes being made as the university re-examines how it will teach. To better prepare teachers for the curriculum reform, the university has provided training workshops and forums. “High-quality teaching is a crucial element of students’ effective learning,” said Michael Prosser, the Executive Director of the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. “It can’t be achieved if teachers don’t know what students really need.”

Despite the university’s achievements so far, there are concerns about the curriculum reform. It is so ambitious that some students see such drastic changes as difficult to manage. One of them is Jacky Yu, the Chairman of the University Affairs Committee, who describes the reform as “easier said than done”.

He acknowledges that the university should help students realize their potential, but struggles to accept the new curriculum and its goals. “The format of the common core courses isn’t really anything new. It’s still the traditional lectures and tutorials,” he said. “That’ll be very dangerous if teachers instil morally biased ideas into students.”

The students also doubt the feasibility of making “Global Citizenship” a graduation requirement in the future. “I’m concerned about assessment,” said one student. “Social service isn’t something which can be easily assessed. Instead of forcing students to take part in social services, we should encourage them to participate voluntarily.”

Tsui Lap-chee, the Vice-Chancellor of the university, admits that the potential problems and concerns are something which he is very aware of. But transforming the campus and creating common learning experience will, he hopes, make a start in changing attitudes and enhancing the university’s position as a world-class institution.

“It’s a very large and prestigious project,” he proclaimed confidently at the Centennial Campus Foundation Stone Laying Ceremony. “To make it successful, there’s significant work to be done. But, if we get it right, it’s going to be the most amazing transformation which global higher education has ever seen. I strongly believe that it will work.”