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SG's speech at the International Conference on General Education

Speech by SG, UGC

General Education and University Curriculum Reform:
An International Conference on General Education

"3+3+4" academic structure - a new era for General Education

Professor Ellis, Dr Schneider, Professor Iwama, Dr Shive, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. It is my great pleasure to join colleagues in the higher education sector at the conference today jointly organized by City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong-American Centre. On behalf of the UGC, I would like to express our sincere thanks to the organizers for inviting us to join this meaningful event.

The "3+3+4" New Academic Structure

2. 2012 is a special year for the UGC sector, as the new academic structure will be implemented at the post-secondary education level. This signifies a milestone for Hong Kong's education reform. Institutions are now in their final stage of preparation for the four-year curriculum.

3. Investing an extra year of education for our undergraduates does not simply mean a bolt-on to the current three-year programme. The essence of it is to offer a balanced education to students through an integrated undergraduate programme that provides a broader knowledge base to support specialized learning. To this end, students under the new curriculum will experience some new aspects - to name a few: "broad-based admission" - through which most of the students will be first admitted to the academic schools or faculties, rather than individual departments, and they will only need to declare majors in the sophomore years; "out-of-classroom learning" - in which students will be encouraged to participate, for instance overseas exchange, internships or short-term job attachment programmes, and some institutions have even make it a graduation requirement; and above all, a substantial portion of credits are labeled to "general education" (or "GE" interchangeably thereafter) courses.

Essence of General Education

4. I am not expert in what constitutes general education. I recognize that definitions vary among schools and certainly among jurisdictions. But I hope that you will forgive me nonetheless if I stumble over a few thoughts of my own about what we think of as GE here in Hong Kong in our "3+3+4" context.

5. If specialized programme represents the depth of undergraduate curriculum, general education might be considered to represent an element of breadth. This has been described as an "inverted T-shaped" curriculum - breadth supporting depth. Or as students of Hong Kong meteorology will know, the inverted T-shape signifies Typhoon Signal Number 3, a coincidence I am sure! Such a mix of specialist and broad-based courses in the curriculum is not a new notion. But general education is obviously gaining increasing importance vis-à-vis the professional modules, especially under the new four-year curriculum, where students will need to enroll in a considerable number of GE courses during their freshman year.

6. But it doesn't mean surely just any old breadth. It must be relevant, contextual breadth. Not take any course outside your major. Universities here in Hong Kong have put massive thoughts and efforts into holistic redesign of overall curricula to include coherent core curricula which complement and enhance the broad discipline areas and progressive selection and pursuit of the major.

7. General education aims to develop a sense of judgment and discernment amongst our students. Together with the professional competencies gained in the specialized areas, our graduates will not only be well-informed but also knowledgeable to relate and associate one area with another. As Dr Earl J McGrath had once succinctly put it, "general education is the thread that ought to weave a pattern of meaning into the total learning experience."

8. My personal view is that general education contains two domains or constructs: i.e. breadth beyond the discipline area or, eventually, major and understanding knowledge - epistemology if you will. But when incorporated into the curriculum, they can lead to a number of desirable qualities begin with the letter "I" ("I" as a prefix seems to be compulsory these days) - iPod, iPad, iPhone or iBank. My three "I"s include Innovation, Interact and Interest. Let me explain!

9. Hong Kong students are often being labeled as "tunnel-visioned". They are characterized as having chosen very early their future career paths, either to become a doctor, or an architect or joining an investment bank (iBank), but they may not have a passion for. Such a social environment, alongside with our alleged "spoon-feeding" education system, have nurtured a pool of very successful "technocrats" for our society over the years. But is this sufficient for Hong Kong to sustain its competitiveness, or more importantly, prepare rounded human beings and capable citizens? The answer is apparent - no.

10. Technical knowledge and expertise alone are not enough for students to succeed in any of these aspects. We need our graduates to be professionals in their chosen field but at the same time balanced human beings who are caring, innovative and critical thinkers. To quote the late Mr Steve Jobs, "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing...". It is not uncommon to hear anecdotal comments that our young graduates lack creativity, despite their good memories and agile mind. "To think out of the box" - this is what we often heard from head hunters and CEOs. "Innovation" is seen as an important attribute which our students are expected to possess in the present-day job market. To this end, university education should not only serve as conveying information, but also inspiring curiosity and encouraging innovation. GE, which stresses ideas exchange, plays an important role in enhancing our students' intellectual competencies and allowing them to think critically and creatively.

11. Next, the ability to interact and communicate with others. General education programmes should require students to include even more discussions, interactions with teachers and self-reflection as well as exchange of opinion. Small group discussions and class debates give students a platform to speak up, where they can develop the abilities to articulate ideas in a clear and coherent manner. "Encouraging" students to become active learners and "guiding" them to go through a journey of self and joint discovery in this new world.

12. Adequate support to the faculty members is essential. In the anticipation that they need to work out new content, develop new pedagogies and derive new assessment methods, institutions have set aside resources to facilitate the development of the faculty members and course curricula. Some rolled out a number of new GE courses years ago, so as to allow students enrolling on the existing three-year curriculum to have a taste of them, and their feedback can help refine the courses before their actual implementation.

13. General education should begin with interest in a topic, a new discipline area, a stimulus, a service - it doesn't matter but interest. I suggest it's an important condition for success. Through the GE programmes if we leave students with better learning about learning or knowledge about knowledge, we will have done our job.

14. Before I close, I would like to stress that few of us would have thought that in our lifetime we would have the chance to reengineer the whole curricula of the Hong Kong education system. In conclusion, let me once again wish you well in your endeavours and thank you for inviting me.