Chapter 10: Undergraduate Courses

10.1 Although, as will have been clear from our report so far, higher education takes many diverse forms and is available to adults of all ages, its epitome for most people in Hong Kong is the full-time post-HKALE course, usually of three years' duration, leading to a first-degree. Such courses are offered by all the UGC institutions and by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. To enter a full-time undergraduate course, the student must have previous general educational qualifications, usually including proficiency in English and Chinese and one or more passes in HKALE. In science, technology and medicine there will also be specific (HKALE or HKCEE) subject requirements, although this is less common in the arts and social sciences. The official language of instruction is in most cases (except for CUHK) English, although Chinese is also used where appropriate.

10.2 There are a few exceptions to the usual length of three years for a full-time undergraduate course. Some courses are of two years duration because they build upon an earlier qualification such as a diploma in the same subject area. Additionally, students may be admitted to the second year of a three-year course if they possess "advanced standing" by virtue of previous study or experience. Some undergraduate courses are extended to four years because they contain a period or periods of professional experience. Examples include the courses in Language Education and BSc in Speech and Hearing Sciences at HKU, and the sandwich courses at CityU and PolyU. Other courses are lengthened because it is believed that the student requires more factual knowledge than can be assimilated in three years or needs to learn a wide range of practical skills: the most important examples are the five year courses in medicine, dentistry and architecture (this last leading to a master's degree).

10.3 Of the approximately 40,000 students on full time first degree courses in 1994-95, 8,500 were reading business or business-related studies, of whom 2,300 were studying accountancy. 6,600 students were following science courses (excluding computer science), with 4,400 of them taking physical science (including mathematics) and 2,200 biological subjects. 5,800 read arts, including performing arts and design, and 5000 took economics and social science subjects. 6,000 students followed engineering/technology courses, 2,000 of them in electrical and electronic specialisms. 3,000 students read medicine, dentistry and related subjects. 3,000 students were studying computer science and another 1,800 the built environment, including architecture. The remaining 500 were in law and education studies.

10.4 The distribution of the preceding paragraph is shown in Figure 10.1. It does not follow, of course, that this distribution, which is the result of historical decisions taken by the institutions and the UGC over many years, exactly matches the aspirations of young people today (which may themselves be conditioned by subject streaming in the secondary schools). Evidence from the institutions suggests that at present it is difficult to fill places in Applied Computing, Materials Technology, Biology, Mathematics, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Physical Sciences and Religious Studies.

Figure 10.1 Distribution of Full-time Undergraduates (fte)
between Subject Areas in the UGC-funded Institutions (1994-95)

Figure 10.1

Source : UGC Secretariat

10.5 It is worth examining the larger areas in a little more detail. Within business studies, which is followed by nearly one-fifth of full-time undergraduates, the most popular subject is accountancy, with 5% of all students, as we have already noted. No other specialism attracts this sort of number, although finance and marketing options are popular. Many students favour generalised business courses leading to the Bachelor of Business Administration.

10.6 Arts (including performing arts and design) and science (excluding computer science) each attract about 15% of students. Within arts, Chinese language and literature is popular, as are English and History. Science divides two-thirds to physical science (including Mathematics) and one-third to biological science. Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics remain the major groupings within physical science and biological science is largely undifferentiated; there has only been small development as yet in modern combinations such as environmental science and biotechnology. Not included in the science numbers are the 7% of full time undergraduates reading computer science.

10.7 Engineering/technology also takes 15% of students, of whom, as we have noted, one-third are reading electrical or electronic subjects. Most courses are associated with traditional departmental specialisms - civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical - although industrial engineering and computer engineering are also represented. There are no engineering science courses of the type favoured in some universities outside Hong Kong, but there has been some bridging of the disciplines with degrees in systems engineering and mechatronics.

10.8 One eighth of full-time undergraduates read economics and social sciences, of whom the largest groups are the 2% of all students studying economics and the 2% studying social work. Courses in public administration are also popular. There are medical schools at two institutions (HKU and CUHK) where the numbers on the five-year courses amount to 4.5% of full-time undergraduates. The dental school at HKU takes 0.5% and subjects allied to medicine (mostly at PolyU) another 3%.

10.9 Of the estimated 40,000 Hong Kong students in higher education who are studying outside the territory (see paragraph 2.11), about 70% are undergraduates. Almost all of these will be taking full-time courses. There is limited evidence as to subject breakdown. In the United States, 35% of Hong Kong undergraduates are taking Business Studies and 16% Engineering. In the UK, the proportions are respectively 35% and 13%. In Australia, half of all Hong Kong students are taking Business Studies, but only 9% engineering.

10.10 Part-time undergraduate courses satisfy a variety of needs, including improved standing for those in employment by "topping-up" an existing qualification or providing one from the beginning, or offering a second chance to those who missed out on degree course places as school leavers. A part-time degree may also be taken because of leisure interest in the subject, rather than with career advancement as the objective. We shall discuss part-time numbers in terms of their full time equivalent (fte), although the conversion factors from headcount can be controversial. There are about 2,500 fte students taking part-time undergraduate courses which are funded by the UGC. However, all part-time degree courses in the OLI, and a number in the UGC institutions, are self-financing. So, of course, are those leading to qualifications of institutions outside Hong Kong (paragraph 2.10). Of the 8,000 fte higher education students in the OLI (paragraph 2.7) most are on undergraduate courses. There are a further 800 fte students on self-financing courses in UGC institutions which lead to a Hong Kong bachelor's degree and another 5,000 fte in those institutions, or engaged in private study, for a degree awarded by an overseas provider (paragraph 2.10). In total, then, we have about 16,000 fte part-time undergraduates.

10.11 Information on their subjects of study is incomplete, but the distribution seems to be similar to that in Figure 10.1 except that the share of most areas has shrunk slightly to allow for a substantial presence of education studies (15% of all part-time undergraduates) and of subjects allied to medicine - mostly nursing at HKU, CUHK and PolyU.

10.12 Apart from some first degree courses, described in the preceding paragraphs, which are aimed at a specific career (for example, dentistry), our discussions with organisations representing a wide range of employers suggest that the content of an employee's degree is usually not of great importance in determining his or her usefulness. It is, in any case, common experience that the factual elements of an undergraduate course have less relevance to the tasks which are being undertaken a few years after graduation than the conceptual knowledge and problem-solving skills learned at university. What employers are seeking is a general development of the powers of the mind, flexible and innovative approaches to problems, and the necessary language and social skills required for effective communication with others. Whether the graduate has acquired these attributes through studying Chinese literature or systems engineering may be unimportant.

10.13 The processes by which undergraduate education is conducted still depend largely on personal teacher/pupil interaction through lectures, tutorials and practical classes (even the OLI provides substantial tutorial support for its distance learning). Modern electronic aids to learning are used as an adjunct to, rather than a substitute for, traditional pedagogy. Perhaps because much of the purpose of first degrees is unrelated to the specific subject matter (although of course individual students are enthused by some subjects and not by others), undergraduate courses have a great deal in common and they generally form the largest coherent area of activity within higher education, with a total of 56,000 fte students. Sub-degree courses, to which we turn next, are more diverse and often serve quite specific ends.

Report Menu  Prev Chapter  Next Chapter