Chapter 1: The Routes to Higher Education

1.1 This report is about the past, present and future opportunities for the people of Hong Kong to participate in "higher" education. There are differing views as to the nature and purpose of higher education and we shall not attempt any precise definition, although we believe that HE is as much concerned with the development of the individual as it is with societal needs for skilled manpower. For some, higher education is tertiary, growing from the base of secondary education because of the greater complexity of its subject matter or the greater depth of the treatment. For others, higher education is post-secondary in a chronological sense, satisfying the learning needs of people of all ages once formal secondary schooling or junior technical education is over. We shall incline to the second approach, while being conscious of the first. Our report will therefore encompass most of the post-school provision for learning except for craft and lower level technician courses. Before we can consider higher education, however, we need to survey briefly the previous learning experience of the potential students and the ways by which they may approach further study.

1.2 Hong Kong's children are today required to stay at school until the age of fifteen or the end of secondary 3, whichever is the earlier. They thus all receive a minimum of about three years of secondary education. This has only been true, however, since 1978, and some 46% of the population aged 25 and above have received no secondary schooling. After secondary 3 some children currently abandon formal education while others join craft and technician courses, but about 91% choose to stay at school for a futher two years. They follow curricula leading to the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). The schools in which the children study fall into three groups : government schools (8% of pupils); aided schools, largely funded by government but managed by voluntary bodies (77%); and private schools (15%).

1.3 Some of the learning opportunities after HKCEE lie within our broad catchment of higher education. These include two or three year sub-degree courses, usually vocational in nature, and three-year courses of teacher education. In addition to this full-time provision, there is a very wide range of part-time courses available to those who have entered employment.

1.4 At present 38% of children stay at school after secondary 5 (HKCEE) and take two year sixth form courses leading to the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE). Students with appropriate grades in HKALE may then enter three-year diploma or first degree courses or two-year courses of teacher education, although some join sub-degree courses for which HKALE grades are not a prerequisite. Those gaining first degrees or equivalent qualifications may subsequently be admitted to taught higher degrees or may undertake research for a master's degree or a doctorate.

1.5 The interface between sixth-form studies and higher education has become increasingly important in recent years because of the growth in the proportion of young people opting for continuing their education rather than entering employment (currently about 75%). The University Grants Committee (the author of this report) therefore commissioned a study by a team from the University of Hong Kong, led by Professor Cheng Kai-ming, of the Preparation of Students for Tertiary Education. The team's findings (subsequently referred to as the POSTE Report) have been published separately, but we quote here some of the conclusions (those concerned with demand are deferred to Chapter 30).

1.6 The POSTE team studied the intended and actual sixth form curriculum, the teaching and learning of the English and Chinese languages, and how students chose higher education courses and institutions. Respondents to the study felt that the formal curriculum was overloaded with factual material and that there was insufficient development of analytical and critical skills. In terms of the actual courses followed by sixth form pupils, the broadening intended by the introduction of Advanced Supplementary Level subjects has largely gone unheeded, and the orthodox nature of most teaching (albeit some of it very good) means that the aims of the Curriculum Development Council for inculcating creative thinking and rational and independent decision making are unlikely to be realised.

1.7 The POSTE study showed very positive views by both teachers and students towards the Use of English curriculum, but there was insufficient student participation in class. This is consistent with lack of practice in the language in other lessons. Although almost all of the schools surveyed supposedly taught in English, classroom observation revealed that this was not the case. Students were less passive in the Chinese Language and Culture classes, but their progress was limited by poor initial competence and lack of respect for the subject matter. With regard to student choice of institutions, the team found that the three oldest (CUHK, HKU and PolyU) were the most popular, but that there was a dichotomy between subject choice and level of attainment at A level. Professional subjects attracted modest numbers of applicants, but with good AL results. The social sciences and arts were more popular, but applicant quality was lower.

1.8 Perhaps the most important and disturbing result from the POSTE Report was the authors' conclusion that teachers in secondary and in tertiary education may have very little understanding of each other's needs and contributions. Secondary teachers may not understand what attributes higher education institutions would like to find in their entrants, and tertiary teachers may have little knowledge about current activity in sixth forms. If this is indeed true, it is a deficiency which needs urgent attention.

1.9 The pattern of education which we have described so far, and a transitionary step in which is examined by the POSTE Report, is one which can be followed full time and continuously from the age of six (primary school entry) to about twenty-two (gaining a first degree). For the majority of our young people, however, full time education follows a shorter, and in some cases different, path. There has therefore grown up in Hong Kong and elsewhere a great deal of provision, mostly part time, which enables students to improve their understanding and qualifications after their initial formal education has ended. This additional opportunity is important for current school-leavers, but it is even more vital for older age-groups, whose opportunities for full time education may have been much less than those currently available.

1.10 Even apart from the process of "catching up" there is an increasing demand for two types of continuing, or through-life, education. The first is closely related to the workplace, and is often called continuing and professional education (CPE). Employers may require members of their workforce to acquire updated or new skills, or individuals may see this acquisition as improving their job opportunities or promotion prospects. Some of these CPE courses lead to recognised professional qualifications.

1.11 The second type of through-life education is concerned with leisure. Individuals may wish to improve their knowledge of a particular area in order to further their enjoyment of a leisure pursuit or hobby. Topics range from the cultural to the practical. Although the motivation for attending courses for this purpose may be quite different from that for joining CPE, there is no clear distinction from the point of view of the provider, and some courses may readily serve both interests. A great deal of through life education lies within our broad conspectus of higher education and much of it is provided by institutions otherwise associated with post-secondary teaching.

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