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"3+3+4" Symposium - "Partnering for Excellence in Education" Speech Topic: The University Grants Committee and "3+3+4"

6 December 2008 (Saturday)

Keynote Speech by Mr Michael V STONE, JP
Secretary-General, University Grants Committee

Professor Cheung, Professor Lee, distinguished friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning! It is a daunting pleasure to speak to such a large gathering of distinguished educators. I believe it was Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said:

"Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested"

And I know there are many Headmasters among you, so I better take care. In any event, I am honoured to be invited to share with you today my views on important issues in relation to the introduction of the new undergraduate system, as well as the work of the University Grants Committee (UGC) and its funded institutions.

I hope not to detain you for more than 10 minutes, because having listened to many presentations in my time, I find it is the question and answer sessions that are the most useful: I hope there will be time at the end of this session for that.

The "3+3+4" reform provides a golden opportunity for the higher education sector to flourish. I shall not repeat the benefits and opportunities of the four-year system- which I think have been well articulated already- suffice it to say that I think they are real and very important. Instead I propose to highlight some other important issues that the higher education sector will need to face, so that we can discuss our "3+3+4" preparation in a deeper context today.

A tremendous amount of work is needed to ensure a smooth transition to the new four-year system. The UGC Chairman and other speakers have highlighted the importance of close partnership within the education field and this will be vital. An essential factor for ensuring a successful launch of the new undergraduate system is to have the understanding and confidence of schools, parents and students in what we are all doing. In order to achieve this, we must have a clear understanding about the challenges that lie ahead, and to be prepared.

Challenges Ahead

I shall focus on five issues which will be important to the success of the four-year system: curriculum planning and translation into current programmes; the double cohort year itself; capital projects; inter-sectoral issues and student numbers.

Curriculum planning

Curriculum planning is firmly under the purview of the institutions and since they are doing all the hard work, I shall not steal their thunder. The point I should like to make is that it is very important to make sure that the current programmes remain vibrant and take on board any new or improved ideas/provisions which institutions will be building into their 4 year programmes. We need to make all students feel they are benefiting from the change to four years- not just those starting in 2012.

Happily our institutions are doing just that- and already there are changes to admission policies- i.e. to faculty instead of department; introduction of new and innovative core curriculum programmes; and initiation of final year projects in more areas - something that there is much more room for under a 4 year system. All very encouraging.

Institutions are also already working out the curricula which the double cohort itself will pursue simultaneously in 2012/13 under 3-year and 4-year undergraduate programmes. It is the common goal of our institutions to provide the two cohorts with equally sound and productive undergraduate studies. This will be a very complex job, since students will arrive with very differing levels of preparedness. Strengthening students-related support will be vital, as students will need a lot more help and guidance in how best to select the credits needed for their chosen programmes.

Double Cohort

Rather more daunting is the actual double cohort itself. In 2012, there will be two cohorts of students- 29,000 students - entering UGC-funded institutions - i.e. Form 7 students taking Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) and Senior Secondary 3 students taking Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination. This will tax institutions severely, starting with admissions.

Student admission is the one segment which concerns parents and students most, and whether the transition to the new undergraduate system is perceived as successful or not may be judged by the public's first impressions of the admission process. It is therefore particularly important to ensure a smooth and effective admission process in 2012.

The UGC and the institutions are taking action. Institutions are reviewing the operation of the Joint University Programmes Admission System (JUPAS), and they are actively discussing various admission-related issues with the Education Bureau, the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority and other relevant parties.

But we have heard that there are worries about "tougher competition" for admission to the UGC sector in 2012, despite the fact that there will be double the number of first-year-first-degree (FYFD) places. Will there be advantages or disadvantages in being in the last A level or first Diploma cohort? How can I maximise Ah Chung's chances? The UGC and the Education Bureau need to reassure parents and schools that the admission of the double cohort will be conducted in a manner which is absolutely fair to both cohorts. We consider it a high priority to give assurance to our parents and students in the new system.

Capital projects

The double cohort will create huge demand for additional academic facilities and more student hostel places. The UGC and the Administration have supported a total of 12 capital projects in relation to "3+3+4". At the same time, another 14 projects, including student hostels for meeting existing shortfall, are being constructed or under advanced planning. Taking into account all these 26 projects, we expect that some 214,000 square meters of additional space- more than a quarter more than there is now - and nearly 6,600 new student hostels will be provided in the next three to four years.

Have you ever known a capital project built on time? Well, we must try and make sure that the 334 ones are indeed built on time- they must be ready by September 2012. We are just at the stage of going to the Legislative Council with many of the projects. So, we hope for a smooth passage and then rapid development. The UGC has been working very closely with institutions to take the projects forward. Now we pray for no rain for the next 4 summers- except after 6 at night - and no unexpected site problems. But we may also need to make contingency arrangements nevertheless.

Inter-sectoral Issues

The "3+3+4" reform affects everyone in the education sector. There are interlocking issues we must grasp. For example, the higher education sector needs to understand the new senior secondary curriculum for their planning of the undergraduate curriculum. And apart from undergraduate programmes, the Community College sector also needs to examine the existing Associate Degrees / sub-degree programmes to tie in with the changes in secondary and undergraduate studies. Further articulation pathways for students is already a big topic and will get more prominent after 2012. We therefore need to collaborate with each other closely. This is one of the reasons that we gather here today. The Education Bureau is leading the discussion of interface issues among different parties concerned - and the UGC is playing its full part. We will continue actively to participate in the discussion on this front.

Student Places

Recently, there have been voices asking for more publicly-funded tertiary places for "3+3+4" - and for articulation places for more AD graduates. Currently, the Government invests about one-quarter of its annual expenditure in education, of which 25% is allocated to the higher education sector. This demonstrates the Government's support for education, including the higher education sector. In a highly globalized and knowledge-based economy like Hong Kong, no doubt the demand for tertiary study will become stronger, regardless of the implementation of "3+3+4".

Resources are, as always, the key issue and with limited resources, it may not be realistic to expand significantly publicly-funded places. But we do have a vibrant self financing university and Community College sector. It is making an important contribution to providing Hong Kong with a vibrant pool of well-educated young people. The balance of funding for tertiary education between public funds and private provision is a very sensitive subject in most jurisdictions. Hong Kong is no exception. While most tertiary provision in the past used to be publicly funded, now we have moved to a position where an increasing percentage is private funded.

Is this "bad"? or somehow wrong? Does it show the government neglecting its duty? There are very different examples to draw from around the world. The UK and Europe are still very much publicly funded systems. But the US is about half half- and the likes of Korea, Japan and Taiwan have a large percentage of privately funded provision. What is best for Hong Kong? This is a matter the community will need to debate. And, while I am not here to sing the praises of the government, the extended students grants and loans scheme now makes it viable for less well off students to study accredited self financed programmes. But perhaps one thing we can agree on is that the upholding and enhancing of quality in all areas of post secondary provision is the best way of ensuring our students have multiple pathways to follow to develop their talents.

Closing

So, we have many challenges and many unanswered questions. But challenge is opportunity and I am sure that Hong Kong can rise to the challenge. The symposium today is a good step to spearhead our discussion and partnership on this front. I am sure that you will have stimulating discussion sessions later today, and I look forward to the sharing of ideas on how jointly to promote excellence in our higher education sector under "3+3+4". ENDS