Improving our educational quality further

Peter Ho

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First, some background and a disclaimer. Linkage is well aware that the University Grants Committee, in its current review of higher education in Hong Kong, is planning to stream the existing seven universities into teaching-oriented and research-oriented institutions (Linkage No. 208). This proposal has caused great consternation in the higher education sector. We are also aware that a group of senior academics at CityU is now making their voices heard, most recently in the court of public opinion.

They argue, mainly, against the stifling of competition that would result in a two-tier system and the likely outcome that CityU will be unfairly banded as a teaching institution. So, when Linkage looks at CityU's latest developments in undergraduate education in these pages, the last thing we want is to be misconstrued as having, knowingly or otherwise, entered this argument. As we have often been told, CityU walks on two legs--research and teaching are equally important and our achievements on both fronts are equally outstanding. In fact, we--the University Publications Office--have been consistent and timely in bringing to the University community the latest news of our research efforts. This news includes increases in research fundings (CityU Today No.14), research breakthroughs or profiles on eminent scholars (CityU Today No. 13, for example, not to mention numerous past issues of Linkage and Bulletin). What we hope to accomplish this time is to piece together the latest developments in our undergraduate education--quality assurance, curriculum changes and students' resident life--as the building blocks of a master plan of the way forward, soon to be unveiled as the second strategic plan for the years 2002-07.

 

 

Quality assurance

In the next few months, according to Professor Edmond Ko, Vice-President (Education), managing the second round of the UGC's Teaching and Learning Quality Process Review (TLQPR) will rank high on his priority work list. Conducted once every six years, the review, scheduled to cover all UGC-funded institutions by April 2003, aims to find out how well the local universities and colleges carry out their "primary mission" of teaching and learning work. The UGC has already communicated to us the focus of the review, criteria for assessment and the necessary administrative arrangements for it. The review will look into five major areas: curriculum design; design of teaching and learning processes; design of student assessment and use of such results; quality of implementation; and the way resources are committed to education quality work. The panel will train its eyes on the processes to assure and improve the quality of delivered education, that is, on "education quality work", not just on the quality of teaching and learning itself.

The forthcoming review, for the first time, will also look into CityU's research postgraduate and continuing education. The 11-person panel, to be headed by Professor Rosie Young, ex-Chairman of the Education Commission, will also inspect support units such as the Library and the Student Development Services, in addition to meeting with the students. The University must submit a 20-page self-evaluation document in October to kick off the review exercise. The results, Professor Ko pointed out, will have implications on triennial funding.

 

 

In January 1997, the last time a UGC TLQPR panel visited CityU, it highly commended CityU's quality assurance mechanisms and procedures (Linkage No. 163, July 1997). "We should not feel complacent," Professor Ko said. "Neither should we treat the review visit as an another exam. Rather, we feel that we must seize this opportunity to look closely at our quality assurance processes again, with the view to making them even better." Despite the high marks we gained last time, a lot of changes have occurred between 1997, when we were a young university, and now, when we are showing early signs of academic maturity. The most significant change is that CityU has transformed from a programmed-based curriculum tradition, with a sizeable portion of the quality assurance duties residing in the Senate, to today's credit unit system, where many of these responsibilities are devolved to the faculties and departments. "It doesn't mean what transpired in the past no longer applies," Professor Ko said, "it's just that we have to re-examine the whole situation with a new purpose and, if necessary, carry out minor touch-ups to our regulations and procedures." A paper will be considered by the Senate soon to tidy up "the regulations on the book" to make them conform to the credit unit system. As the institution becomes increasingly "mature academically", for instance, our view of external examiners inevitably also changes, he said. As we can now accredit our own programmes, compared to resorting to outside help several years ago, the role of external examiners in the new credit unit system--as occasional markers of examination papers, academic advisors or else--would need to be re-examined. Such decisions should increasingly be devolved to the faculty boards and departments concerned as the ultimate owners of the programmes and courses on offer, within a set of broad and general guidelines set by the University.

To ensure the University is well prepared for the UGC visit next year and to spread the message through the ranks, Professor Ko has set up an internal TLQPR network, headed by a task force of some 30 staff members. They represent all the academic departments as well as a number of academic units, such as the School of Graduate Studies, the Chinese Civilisation Centre and the English Language Centre, which have either teaching functions or a student learning focus. Staff from all ranks are represented on the task force, which is stacked with a wealth of experience: those at frontline teaching positions, those who have been involved with teaching and learning support at departmental or grassroots level, as well as those who participated in the first TLQPR visit. "The task force will take the place of a formal committee," said Professor Ko. "Not only will it help relay the latest information on the visit to departmental colleagues, it will also introduce the best practices in teaching and learning to the campus community." So far, the group has met once and has resolved to launch a special Website to get their work off the ground.

 

 

Improving our student intake

In late January and early February, a few newspapers reported that the Government is planning to relax the quota of non--local students-mainly students from the mainland--to 4% (now 2%) of the first-year, first-degree places in local universities. The Government also encouraged institutions to admit a handful of Form 6 students with exceptional academic abilities, up to 2% of the said places. In expanding the student intake from non-JUPAS sources, it is hoped that the student body will be more diversified and that their learning experience more enriched. At present, CityU has not used up its entitled number of non-local students, 45 in a total of some 2,300 first-year, first-degree places. In fact, no other universities in Hong Kong have exhausted the quota; the sector-wide average hovers around 1.6%. CityU has been actively looking into ways to recruit more students from the mainland on a fee-paying basis, most conveniently from the nearby Pearl River Delta region. A senior delegation of CityU visited the Pearl River Delta region last November, and among its other missions, explored such a possibility. It returned with some favourable impressions.

 

 

Professor Ko agrees that expanding the pool of university applicants is the right way forward and CityU supports the general direction. He is, however, surprised by the sudden quickening in pace, especially on the issue of admitting Form 6 students based on their HKCEE results. In the long haul, local universities will switch over to a basic four-year curriculum, a current education reform agenda that is targeted for implementation as early as in 2007D08. Before that becomes a reality, admitting form six students is at best a stopgap measure to expand and diversify the current student intake.

 

 

"On taking in Form 6 students, we already have the mechanism in place," said Professor Ko. CityU has long taken in students with alternative qualifications, such as the Grade 12 equivalents under the US system. A paper has recently been passed in the Senate defining what the alternative qualifications can be. It also spells out the requirements of a foundation year, into which the non-traditional student recruits will usually enrol. Foundation year students, now a handful in number, have to take up an extra 30 credits on top of the 90 normally required for three-year study. The faculty boards are the final arbiters of what these extra credits should be, taking into account the students' academic backgrounds, aspirations and courses on offer that match their individual needs.

 

 

Whether more Form 6 students can be accepted into CityU ultimately depends on the quality of the foundation year, or the common first year. "In the next few years, we have to broaden the educational base of our students further, with a better and wider choice of out-of-discipline electives," said Professor Ko. There is, however, one pitfall in this approach of adding one year of studies at the ground level of a three-year curriculum. "In many cases, we might be better off restructuring the entire programme curricula from a four-year, holistic perspective, instead of just tagging a layer on the pavement," he said. The holistic approach often mandates a redistribution of academic prerequisites, requisites and workload, all sequenced in a more organic and meaningful manner. At the moment, the University allows differences across faculties: some may opt for an extra year, others can start looking at the whole curriculum line-up across four years, in anticipation of the final cross-over in around 2007. Professor Ko reiterates that it is perfectly normal that faculties may have different views of a foundation year and its requirements. Also acceptable is the fact that they may have their own ideas on the kind of non-JUPAS and non-local students they would like to recruit or admit.

 

 

Student admission criteria now have become more flexible and encompassing, with increasing emphasis given to the applicants' non-academic achievements. On top of the 4% and 2% intake quotas mentioned earlier, the University has also opened up other pathways, within the overall JUPAS pool, to admit eligible A-Level students through the recommendations of secondary school principals and the outstanding athletes' scheme. The University will strive to improve the quality of its student intake, with more emphasis on the ability to select rather than just to admit students. "I always say there is a big distinction between being able to admit and to select a class," Professor Ko said, citing increasing tendencies in the criteria used by the Schools of Creative Media and of Law to choose their students in the past two years. These involve better collaboration between the central office and the academic departments, from course promotion to staging selection interviews, etc. The aim is to expand our entire intake pool and change CityU's pecking order on the students' preferred list.

 

 

Think globally, act locally
The recruitment of students from the mainland, those sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is a good example of closer cooperation between the central offices and academic departments, Professor Ko said. He believes ownership of academic decisions should by and large reside in the departments, with a centralized function or administrative office yielding the necessary support, coordination and, sometimes, strategic guidance. Borrowing from the business world, he espouses the wisdom of the "think globally, act locally" approach in improving teaching and learning quality at CityU. He encourages faculty and departments to start up their own teaching and learning support infrastructure. The Faculty of Business, for example, now has its own learning enhancement centre while the Faculty of Science and Engineering has appointed an associate dean in charge of education (Professor Johnny Chan) and is about to start up a faculty teaching support group. The School of Law, on the other hand, also has appointed a director of student learning from among its academic staff. The central office will continue to strengthen its role in providing institutional-wide support, for example, in organizing new faculty orientations each year and providing training for teaching assistants.

 

 

Apart from arousing action and support at the grassroots level, Professor Ko also hopes to facilitate better coordination and planning of educational matters large and small at the centre. This is the reason behind his recent announcement of the launch, on 1 July, of an Education Office, which will pull together existing sections of the CELT and the Registrar's Office. Essentially, the new set-up will bring together the numerous functions of providing support to the Academic Policy and Quality Assurance Committees and institutional research under one umbrella. Such a move will result in faster data analysis and better decision support in academic planning to meet the dizzying changes in the higher education environment.

 

 

The long haul
"I think we have done a pretty good job in undergraduate education in the past few years," said Professor Ko. "But the next few years will be critical." The incremental changes that he described are in fact building blocks of the next strategic plan, which will be unveiled later this year. The University believes that the ideal graduate profile, put forward in the AURORA strategy six years ago, is still current today. "We always say we prepare students for the world of work, yet the future world of work will be characterized by the speed of change," he said, summarizing the consensus view from rounds of discussions with other senior colleagues. Echoing what the President told Linkage in February, Professor Ko said that now we have to prepare students for change. "Not only should the students not be afraid of change, they should learn to anticipate, embrace and lead change."

 

 

In the next five years, the single most important factor of change in CityU's undergraduate education will no doubt be the student hostels, he said. Other changes--curriculum change, increase of OOD selections, etc--will still prevail, but none will cause as fundamental a change in our institutional character as the opening of the student hostels, with the first batch of 800 bed-study places slated for completion this coming summer. In the past five years, CityU has successfully introduced a credit unit system and implemented a technology-based administration of learning. The next phase, Professor Ko said, will be defined by a wider choice of better OOD electives, more meaningful out-of-class learning opportunities, and the use of residential life to push for an upgrade in the quality of our whole-person education experience. "As we transform into a residential university, the centre of campus life will migrate northward."

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