The Importance of University Education

Dr Cheung Chor-yung
Senior Teaching Fellow
Department of Public Policy

University education is a profound way of learning, which nurtures students’ ability to comprehend their environment and the world, thus inspiring them to become more socially conscious and engaged.

A university education goes beyond the basic skills that enable us to function successfully as members of modern day society. It should also inspire us to understand the conditions and preconditions of what surrounds us, says Dr CHEUNG Chor-yung, senior teaching fellow of the Department of Public Policy.

“Being a well-educated and well-rounded individual entails an ability to solve problems, but also to comprehend our environment and what’s happening in the wider world,” Cheung says. “Being able to innovate, create and push the frontiers of our understanding are also qualities which underpin advances in civil society.”

He adds that previous generations recognised that learning was neither a solitary activity nor about restricting oneself to a single discipline. Therefore, they brought together different subjects like literature, history and science under one roof to make university education a multidisciplinary conversation about all the factors and phenomena encountered on Planet Earth.

“Our ancestors thought an intellectual conversation involving students of different disciplines would enhance a holistic understanding of the whole spectrum of knowledge derived from the human experience.”

More recently, the idea behind liberal studies is to liberate ourselves from merely focusing on day-to-day issues and common sense matters. The aim is to develop a more profound, comprehensive understanding of our role as human beings, our relationships with others, and the way the world works. Time at university is intended to liberate students from a narrow focus on purely practical questions and dogmatic positions, so they can see and appreciate alternative perspectives.

“In philosophy, there is an issue concerning appearance and reality,” Cheung says. “In many cases, there is more than meets the eye, and we should be trying to figure out the relationships and reasons. That’s why we value scientific inquiry and philosophy, which help in examining theories and scrutinising suppositions. In the context of liberal studies, we should never be satisfied with initial appearances.”

Furthermore, to understand social issues, we can’t simply observe society or take a basic common sense approach to problems. We need to consider a wide range of concepts, ideas and intellectual constructs to come up with different possibilities and outcomes. The subjects studied at university have evolved over time to help us do this. They encourage us to look at major issues from a political, sociological or economic point of view and find solutions which draw on expertise and insights from multiple sources.

“In this way, a university education helps to develop practical solutions for social problems,” Cheung says. “Also, if you hope to be a business leader, doctor or a successful professional in any other field, you have to understand how society works and what makes people tick. In more abstract terms, a better understanding of humanity is a precondition for developing anything that will make the world a better place.”

In the atmosphere of inquiry and learning they encounter at university, it’s natural for young students to be inspired to learn more about what is happening beyond the campus and to become more socially conscious.

“It is common for the younger generation, as they understand more, to be politically and socially active,” Cheung says. “The more curious you are, the more you want to know, and the more you want to make things better. It was like that in the 1970s, and the same applies to those who participated in the ‘Umbrella Movement’.”

He notes too that several first-class honour students from CLASS have entered politics as assistants to radical legislators. Such activism, though, is nothing new. When the student movements of the 1960s spread to Hong Kong, they gave rise to the anti-corruption campaign, demands for Chinese as an official language, and strong views about the Diaoyutai islands.

“In a society, if we want to innovate, we have to pay particular attention to the talents and interests of bright young people,” Cheung says. “Under ‘one country, two systems’, many young activists are disappointed by the lack of progress towards full democracy and over the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland. However, they must look for constructive ways of making progress and see there are different ways of doing things. They have a vision for building a better Hong Kong and are worried that future prospects have become more uncertain.”

In the current circumstances, he notes, some university activists feel they cannot make as much of an impact as those in previous decades. For instance, in the 2016 Legislative Council elections, several young radicals and localist-type candidates were elected, but later disqualified. Their predicament is whether to step back or to fight on without any chance of winning.

“For some students, social activism is part of the university experience and a matter of personal growth,” Cheung says. “But it’s important to make sure the experience leads to something worthwhile and constructive. University plays an important role by not indoctrinating or limiting freedom of expression and, instead, adopting a liberal attitude to learning.”

Recommended books on university education:

1. Oakeshott, M., & Fuller, T. (1989). The Voice of Liberal Learning Confucian Tradition and Global Education. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2. De Bary, W. T. (2007). Confucian Tradition and Global Education. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press