Chapter 20: Language in Higher Education

20.1 Admission to its courses is a matter for each individual UGC-funded institution. When determining its requirements, the institution needs to take into account developments in secondary schools which might affect the language standard of sixth-form students, the language requirements of academic programmes at the first-degree and other levels and community aspirations regarding the language ability of graduates. The general entry requirements for first degree courses of all of the UGC-funded institutions are that applicants must obtain at least a pass in the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination, Advanced Supplementary Level Use of English and Advanced Supplementary Level Chinese Language and Culture or equivalents and some also specify at least a pass in English Language and/or Chinese Language in the HKCEE. Requirements for entry to higher diploma courses are generally similar. However, some institutions often devolve to their departments responsibility for deciding whether applicants have an adequate language competence for admission. ECR 6 expresses a sense of urgency that institutions "should be requested to consider enforcing strictly their minimum entrance requirements as regards English language proficiency". Government has subsequently stated that it will impress upon the heads and staff of the institutions that they should be more rigorous in enforcing English Language entrance requirements with a view to upholding the quality of higher education, and this is also the position of the UGC.

20.2 Since 1991-92, UGC institutions have been required to submit annual assessment reports on the language ability of their first-degree entrants. These provide information on entrants' English and Chinese examination results at, respectively, the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) and the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). From 1994-5 the Chinese Language Examination results of the Hong Kong Supplementary Level Examination (HKASLE), rather than the HKCEE results, have been asked for, as these have become general entry requirements for the UGC-funded institutions and also provide more recent evidence of entrants' Chinese Language ability.

20.3 The statistics thus obtained suggest two important points: (1) that the widening of access to degree level education in Hong Kong initially meant a decline in the average language attainment of entrants (the number of entrants with "A" or "B" in HKALE "Use of English" stayed more or less the same, while the number with "D" or "E" greatly expanded), but (2) that - possibly contrary to expectation - the decline was not progressive, even though numbers of entrants continued to rise. In 1992-93, among the reported 9,925 entrants, 24.4% obtained Grade "C" or above in the HKALE "Use of English" Examination. In 1994-5, the corresponding figures were 12,356 first-degree entrants of whom 26% gained Grade "C" and above. The figures for Chinese Language show a similar stability.

20.4 On the other hand - and as a guide to where remedial measures may be most urgently called for - there is for each year a similar and considerable variation between the institutions in respect of percentages of high-scoring entrants, and also between average scores of the entrants to the various subject areas within each institution: Pre-Clinical Medicine, and Humanities, showing generally higher scores in AS Level Use of English and AS Level Chinese Language and Culture than the Science and Engineering disciplines. Mathematics is particularly worrying, with only 36% of entrants gaining Grade D or above in English and 49% in Chinese. Institutions often argue that they admit students with inadequate language scores because of their brilliance in the subject area, but there is in fact a strong positive correlation between poor language performance and poor HKALE grades for those so admitted.

20.5 While the UGC monitoring activities described in the previous paragraphs are largely diagnostic, the allocation of indicated language enhancement grants is aimed directly at achieving improved Chinese and English language proficiency among Hong Kong students. The total amount allocated has risen from HK$25m in 1991-92 to HK$60m in 1995-96. So far, the funding allocated to each institution has been proportionate to student numbers. UGC-funded research is in progress, in which several institutions are collaborating, into the possibility of establishing performance indicators, including measures of graduating students' language proficiency; when this study is completed, it may enable a more discriminatory approach to the allocation of language enhancement funds.

20.6 The institutions are required to report annually to the UGC on the effectiveness of their language enhancement programmes, distinguishing between basic remedial activities funded from block grant and activities which take language proficiency further. In January 1992 a UGC Sub-Group on Language Enhancement was formed; it met over a period with representatives of the institutions to discuss language enhancement programmes and the possibility of establishing performance indicators of their effectiveness. This Sub-Group has now been subsumed into the Quality Sub-Committee of the UGC which continues to pay special attention to the monitoring of language enhancement as an aspect of quality assurance in the institutions. The Sub-Committee plans to organise an inter-institutional seminar on this issue in late 1996/early 1997.

20.7 The annual reports received from the institutions show a wide variety of enhancement programmes, both in English and in Chinese, including Putonghua. The indicated grants have clearly proved a genuine stimulus towards a greater concern for students' linguistic skills and for more and better language teaching. Each institution has established programmes which best suit its own needs; but collaboration between institutions is also taking place where similar problems exist. One shared problem is motivation: as long as language proficiency does not figure on the degree certificate, students - and often the students most in need of improvement - may prove unwilling to spare time from their subject-oriented studies. But there is also the opposite problem of over-subscription of certain language programmes, notably courses in Putonghua. The resourcing of such demands and of other language teaching needs, above all through the employment of well-qualified language teachers, is a challenge to each institution. Most have established, and successfully run, self-access centres which, while valuable in themselves, ultimately depend on the constant availability of teachers.

20.8 Without discussing any particular language enhancement programme in detail, certain overall trends seem to be emerging. Programmes seem to be more effective the more the initial - bridging or remedial - work is followed-up in subsequent years. That is, they are more effective when they are conceived of as not just providing remedial English for first-year students, but as promoting a continued awareness of the inseparability of language skills from subject content throughout a student's academic career. For our part, we believe that our institutions need to devote more resources and more time to the improvement of language skill and to conveying to their students its importance in future career prospects. This is one of the areas where they might heed the government's plea to extend teaching time (see paragraphs 7.1 and 7.8) more than they do at present, by greater use of vacation courses. We also recommend that they give serious thought to a system of examining language proficiency and recording the result on students' academic certificates.

20.9 Employability, or vocational need, is the driving force behind most language courses provided in higher education contexts outside first degrees, whether in publicly provided continuing education or in courses run by business firms for their own employees. ECR 6 notes that the Hong Kong Vocational English Programme (HKVEP), launched in 1994 in accordance with a recommendation in ECR 4, has been well received by employers; and it recommends that a new Intensive Vocational Language Scheme be established to provide tailor-made language programmes both in English and Putonghua for school-leavers joining the workforce. There may still be a long way to go before higher education in Hong Kong can truly claim to be providing bilingual or trilingual manpower, but at least the last ten years have seen the establishment of a language enhancement culture.

Report Menu  Prev Chapter  Next Chapter