The advent of four-year, first-degree programmes at local tertiary institutions marks a new way of viewing undergraduate education, according to Professor Kenneth Young, pro-vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
"The world over, undergraduate education is becoming less specialised - because the world is changing so rapidly that a narrow discipline will no longer stand the test of time," he says. "With this trend also comes increasing recognition of enduring values and skills. Thus, the new structure is not just `one more year', but incorporates a change of emphasis."
Young was one of the chief architects of the university's new 3-3-4 academic structure, leading a task force in 2005 to work on the design of the four-year curriculum, and drawing contributions from various CUHK departments.
"The new curriculum is student-centred and driven by desired outcomes," he points out. "In addition to specialised and interdisciplinary knowledge and critical thinking skills, the curriculum will enhance general education, languages and information technology, cultivating the capacity for self-learning and life-long learning among students," he says.
CUHK sees the first-year experience as crucial in helping students adjust to university life and become self-directed learners.
A common core programme will develop competencies in and through Chinese, English, general education, information technology, and physical education.
The whole curriculum is built on a credit-unit system, and students will normally have to complete 123 units over four years and satisfy requirements under separate categories.
The major programme provides depth and, where applicable, training in a profession, Young says. There is also a faculty package requirement so that all students within a faculty could share a common experience and gain broad exposure to related disciplines.
A feature of the major programme is a "capstone course" or experience in the form of research, internship or other learning activity that helps students synthesise their learning in areas such as creative design in the fine arts or architecture, scientific experiments, engineering design, social surveys and fieldwork.
"This innovative course is the culmination of undergraduate experience, sharpening students' thinking through research and helping them integrate and apply their knowledge," Young says. Students will also enjoy greater flexibility to pursue double majors and even double minors, significantly raising their competitiveness upon graduation.
The new curriculum stresses all-round development. It offers more opportunities to enjoy overseas exchanges and internships to broaden student horizons, Young adds.
There are enough opportunities to enable over 90 per cent of each group to join the exchange, of which 20 per cent go to over 200 prestigious institutions worldwide for one semester or one academic year.
CUHK has also been preparing for the extended undergraduate learning programme. New buildings and facilities are being added to provide extra space for teaching, learning, research, library and student facilities.
Young says CUHK is intent on becoming a world-class comprehensive research university steeped in its bilingual and bicultural heritage. Several academic areas are expected to attain exceptional global distinction, including Chinese studies, biomedical and information sciences, economics and finance, and geo-information and earth sciences, he adds.