How Hong Kong varsity did it

Hong Kong UniversityPro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Amy B.M. Tsui

Hong Kong UniversityPro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Amy B.M. Tsui  

It took them seven years of hard work, acrimonious debates and several trials and tribulations before they transformed their traditional three-year undergraduate course to a four-year programme.

It has the same ethos as Delhi University’s, but a teaching methodology and transition process so different as to make the average teacher associated with DU’s methods gasp, as was evident in Lady Shri Ram College on Saturday, where the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University painted a picture of the immense thought and consultations that went behind the making of their “FYUP.”

“I received information back in 2005 that we will be transitioning to the new four-year course in 2012,” said Pro-V-C Prof. Amy B.M. Tsui, explaining how for the first two years she would go to every faculty in the university asking questions like “ what do you want to do? What would you like to see happen?”

As can be expected from any academic institution worth its salt, the debates were acrimonious.

“They said things like, ‘over my dead body will the course be converted,’ and of course I was asked time and again if I was sure that this would work. I would say I cannot be sure if it would work, but I am sure it would never work without your help.”

After that there were academic retreats every year with around 60 to 200 members participating, but the transition meant a lot of changes in the existing system of how the university worked and a re-haul of the course structure also included massive changes in traditional teaching methods.

“Our philosophy is that we want our students to think critically, broaden their outlook, and solve ‘ill defined’ problems. We had faculty tell us their students could solve ‘well defined’ problems, but in a changing world we want our students to know how to tackle novel situations. Not just find solutions, but identify the problem; don’t just learn statistics, but think about whether it is being manipulated by looking at the sample size…personal and professional ethics, advocacy for the improvement of the human condition…our core courses covering science, humanities and mathematics have about 37 credits and is meant to impart all of this.”

Faculty members were put on the job of making the core courses and there were some issues.

“We rejected 110 proposals; we wanted to know what sort of issues they wanted to address. We had reactions like ‘I have been teaching here for 30 years and you are rejecting my course proposal’ and then we had an issue where teaching assistants were being assigned by professors to teach these core courses. We then made it mandatory for the course co-ordinates to belong to the professorial staff. Only seven per cent of the course can be taught by teaching assistants or fellows. Now, around 27 per cent of the courses are being taught by professors, even those who have a chair.”

Each student was allotted a faculty counsellor who is supposed to mentor the student on all academic matters, a peer mentor and one mentor in his or her residence halls.

However, none of this is cast in stone. The faculty has to undergo a process of constant evaluation by the students as well as external examiners.

“The course is dropped and resources withdrawn if the faculty is not doing well in a particular course. But those teachers who have done well are asked to share their methodology and structure with everyone else.”

The university always had budget constraints with government funding covering only about 40 per cent of their needs, but as Prof. Tsui said: “Creativity comes with constraints.”

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