Chapter 25: The Nature and Length of Full-Time Undergraduate Courses

25.1 Undergraduate courses, as we have noted in Chapter 10, have marked similarities one with another, and they form the largest coherent activity within higher education. At present, with a small number of exceptions, full-time undergraduate courses in Hong Kong last three years, and are taught by methods involving a great deal of staff-student contact. In considering the future, we need to consider both course length and teaching methodology, since both have profound influences upon cost.

25.2 The three year length of a full-time undergraduate course seems to be based upon two considerations. The first is the time which it takes a student to absorb the "general" benefits of higher education : an overall development of the powers of the mind, flexible and innovative approaches to the problems of both work and leisure, skill in communication with others, learning to participate in a community, and an appreciation of both one's own and different cultures. The second is the time needed (in certain subjects) to absorb the "specific" benefits of higher education : sufficient knowledge so as to be, or be capable fairly rapidly of becoming, a useful employee on graduating.

25.3 The "general" benefits of a full-time undergraduate course are at present dependent both upon the modes of teaching and upon the environment within which the student is living. The ability to spend a good deal of time on campus (preferably living there), easy access to staff and fellow students, readily available library and other information sources and participation in non-curriculum activities are all important factors. They are also very expensive. We need to consider for the future to what extent the intellectual development and the social development implied by this general element within higher education can be achieved by other means. The time taken to acquire the "general" benefits of higher education is probably not subject dependent - unless the hours needed to master the subject inhibit other activity - nor is it overmuch influenced by the intellectual dexterity of the student since there are many other factors involved. It seems likely that such benefits as are available require a minimum of two years close involvement and that they will be taken within the current three year course, or not at all.

25.4 The time taken to absorb the "specific" benefits of a full-time undergraduate course depends on two factors : the extent of occupational skill which it is hoped to engender; and the learning capacities of the individual student. Unfortunately, it is difficult and expensive to take the second factor into account. At one time the University of Cambridge offered separate Engineering courses at three different speeds: a fast course leading to an honours degree in two years; a normal course leading to an honours degree in three years; and a slow course leading to an ordinary degree in three years. It is difficult to envisage a university able to afford such a luxurious diversity of teaching today, although modular courses can go some way to achieving the same end.

25.5 The result is that, to some extent, "the convoy moves at the speed of the slowest ship." The length of, for example, a medical course may be determined not by the learning speed of the average student, but by the necessity that even the dimmest medical undergraduate shall emerge with sufficient competence that he or she is unlikely to cause much harm to patients. As the age participation rate increases, the spread of ability and learning speed among students will necessarily also increase, and the problems of ensuring that the weaker students benefit from an undergraduate course, while not losing the interest and enthusiasm of the stronger ones, will become more acute. We shall consider later whether the electronic revolution offers palliation.

25.6 The first factor listed in paragraph 25.4 ( the extent of occupational skill which it is hoped to engender) is a matter of judgment, and is much dependent on who is making that judgment. Academic staff tend to want long courses both for employment reasons and because of the pleasure of taking bright young minds near the frontiers of their own subject. Employers tend to want short courses because they believe that they will have to train the tyro in the occupational needs of their own company and that this can best start from a sound basic understanding of the discipline unalloyed by specialist knowledge which may be irrelevant. Students' views are often linked to their current perception of the job market.

25.7 The arguments as to the appropriate length for the "specific" part of undergraduate education have been complicated recently by the increasing importance of "through-life" learning. We discussed this in paragraph 24.6, where we reported that evidence gathered following our Interim Report showed that some educators and employers believe that, because substantial time during a working career will in future have to be given to education and re-education, the current "front loading" of higher education is inappropriate and the length of undergraduate courses should be reduced.

25.8 The arguments advanced (largely by academics) for increasing the length of full-time undergraduate courses are of four kinds (see also paragraph 7.3). The first is based upon the belief that, since knowledge of a particular subject is always increasing, the graduate is ill-equipped unless all of that knowledge has been assimilated. To cover adequately the current understanding of a discipline requires not three years, but four.... or five, or six or seven ..... This argument has been around for hundreds of years. It is countered in good university departments by periodic "disarmament conferences" in which staff determine what are the essential modern elements of their discipline, and overflowing and ragged curricula are reduced to taut, relevant and up-to-date courses.

25.9 The second argument is based not upon depth, but upon breadth. Graduates would be better "rounded" and more useful employees if their undergraduate experience had embraced more than one discipline: engineering courses incorporating business studies; economics together with a foreign language; and so on. The UGC is not unsympathetic to this approach, but if it involves an extension of course length it can only be made available to a small minority of students, partly because of the cost, but also because relatively few students are likely to be able to cope with two disciplines simultaneously to the depth implied by the longer period.

25.10 The third argument, much voiced recently by those in higher education in Hong Kong, is that undergraduate courses need to be lengthened because the schools are failing to prepare students properly. If there is truth in this accusation, it seems to us that the problem needs to be addressed within the school system, not by the expensive expedient of carrying out secondary work in the tertiary sector. The fourth argument is that we are out-of-step with those many other countries which have four year courses. But so, of course, is our school system. We need to consider education as a whole, not its components in isolation.

25.11 The current three year full-time undergraduate courses in Hong Kong follow a two year sixth form period which has only recently been made universal. The few exceptions to the three year pattern are in professional disciplines where, as we have noted earlier, the length of course is probably geared to the capacities of the weaker students. We commend to those involved, particularly as the ability range widens, a study of how to deal satisfactorily with the more gifted undergraduates, either by incorporating different material or, for them, shortening the course. For the great majority of students we believe that the three year course will, after 1998, continue to satisfy both the "general" and "specific" needs of an undergraduate education. This may, however, be a matter which the Education Commission will wish to review in a wider context than is appropriate for the UGC.

25.12 In a very few cases we may be willing to consider an extension for a small proportion of the students within a given department, particularly where the proposal is of a cross-disciplinary nature. The UGC will also be interested in radical proposals in the opposite direction, in line with "through-life" education. We do not wish to suggest specific scenarios, but an example might be the 2+2 system where for a small number of students the second two years immediately follow the first, for some they are accumulated over a lifetime, and for others they are never used.

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