Hong Kong’s Education Reforms and Internationalization Plans

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews

Hong Kong is readying itself for major reforms to its education system that will see secondary school students graduating a year earlier at age 17 and universities offering four-year undergraduate degrees in lieu of British-modeled three-year degrees. The new 3+3+4 academic structure began at the senior secondary level in 2009 and the first class will graduate next year alongside the last graduating class from the old seven-year (5+2) secondary system.

The new academic structure means that students will spend one less year in secondary education before embarking on the revamped four-year undergraduate curriculum, a fact that has implications not only for curriculum design but also for staffing levels and infrastructure capacity. This will especially be the case during next year’s “double cohort” transition period when universities will have to accommodate an estimated 30,000 new students (compared to roughly 16,000 at publicly funded University Grants Committee [1] (UGC) institutions in 2009/10), as the first 17 year-old graduates of the six-year secondary curriculum begin their four-year degrees and the final graduating class of 18 year-old students from the seven-year secondary structure begin the last round of Hong Kong’s three-year degrees.

The government also plans to give more students who have completed associate degrees or diplomas the opportunity to complete an undergraduate degree, with estimates of a long-term increase in annual student numbers of approximately 15,000. The number of third-year undergraduate places for graduates of two-year colleges will double to 4,000 by the 2014 academic year, according to current projections.

Education officials from the UGC, which is overseeing the reform process, are encouraging institutions to engage in an entire rethink of the way students learn. Central to the reform is a move away from intense subject specialization to a more rounded general education curriculum with an increase in the study of the liberal arts, languages, ethics and philosophy. The curriculum changes are also designed to incorporate the teaching of so-called ‘soft skills,’ such as communication and teamwork skills. There will also be an emphasis on boosting overseas experiences for students, including volunteering in developing countries. The new secondary curriculum builds the foundation for the new general education approach to university studies, with a de-emphasis on examinations and a greater focus on creative and artistic subjects, debate and critical thinking.

To accommodate the increased number of students at the university level, education officials are looking to hire 1,000 new professors by 2012, both domestically and from abroad. And the search for teaching talent is not only about meeting student demand, but also about boosting the regional and global competitiveness of local universities, which already rank as some of the strongest in Asia. To boost local capacity and quality, there are also plans to encourage top international universities to set up campuses in Hong Kong, or to establish joint programs and engage in research collaborations. This two-pronged approach of developing the capacity and expertise at local universities while encouraging collaboration with international universities is part of a broader strategy to develop the Special Administrative Region as a regional hub for higher education. Ultimately, the UGC would like to see international enrollments accounting for 20 percent of the total student body in Hong Kong.

In addition to hiring, Hong Kong’s universities are also looking to create more space, both in terms of classrooms and labs, and in terms of accommodations and administrative support. And this is no small feat for a city that is among the most densely populated in the world. According to a recent New York Times article [2], the University of Hong Kong [3] is building a new campus that will increase its capacity by 20 percent. The government is financing about half of the development and the university is raising money for the remainder. Similar infrastructure upgrades are underway – or planned – for most other existing institutions.

The government is also making available land for entirely new campuses, an example of which is an 8,000-seat campus currently under consideration in the Queen’s Hill neighborhood, a former military barracks from the British military. That project is now open to expressions of interest [4] for the development of self-financing higher education projects from both domestic and international institutions. Specifically, institutions that establish at the proposed site would be offering places to self-financed students, suggesting an emphasis on international and private institutions.

New Secondary Curriculum and University Admissions Standards

Admission to higher studies from next year will be based on student achievement in the new three-year senior secondary cycle that culminates with the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Examination and the award of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education [5]. The new exam will completely replace A-Levels (and the Hong Kong Certificate of Secondary Education Examination), which will be taken for the last time next year at the same time as the first batch of students from the new three-year senior secondary cycle take the HKDSE exam. There will be no restriction on the number, or quota, of students eligible to undertake study for the new diploma. This is in contrast to an A-level system that left close to 25,000 qualified students (or one-third of the age group) out of the system.

Under the new academic system, all secondary students are expected to complete three years of junior secondary education followed by three years of senior secondary education. Most students are expected to take four core subjects (Chinese language, English language, mathematics and liberal studies), plus one to three elective subjects from a total of 20 subject areas [6], and ‘Other Learning Experiences’ covering aesthetic, physical and careers education, and community service. Students may also take vocationally oriented Applied Learning courses that respond to local labor market needs as elective subjects in Secondary 5 and Secondary 6 (final two years), as well as one of six ‘other languages’ (French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Spanish, Urdu) to AS-level as defined by the Cambridge International Examinations [7] curriculum.

As a percentage of total classroom instruction, core subjects will consume 45-55 percent of the curriculum, elective subjects 20-30 percent, and Other Learning Experiences (moral and civic education, community service, physical development, aesthetic development, and career-related experiences) 15-35 percent depending on the school and student.

The HKDSE uses a standards-referenced reporting of assessments, which means that student results are measured against a set of prescribed output-based levels of achievement [6] (what a typical student is expected to be able to do with skills attained at a particular subject level) based on the typical performance of candidates at those levels. The results will be expressed in terms of five levels of performance for each subject undertaken, with 5 as the highest and 1 the lowest. Level 5 candidates will be awarded a 5** at the very highest level of performance, with a 5* distinction also being awarded to top performers. A performance below Level 1 will be labeled as “Unclassified.”

The HKDSE will offer multiple pathways to tertiary studies. Not only will the exam grant access to four-year degree programs, but also post-secondary programs (including associate degrees and higher diplomas), and vocational education and training (diploma and certificate programs offered by the Vocational Training Council). Broadly speaking, minimum entry requirements for four-year degrees have been set at Levels 3,3,2,2 in core secondary subjects (3 or better in Chinese and English) and Level 2 or 3 in one or two elective subjects and Applied Learning subjects although this varies by department and institution. For two-year programs, 5 grades at Level 2 or better are required, including English and Chinese.

Students applying to tertiary institutions will also be required to prepare a Student Learning Profile, which outlines what the student has participated in and achieved in terms of whole person development during his or her secondary years, including Other Learning Experiences which are part of the new secondary curriculum. The profile is designed to include awards and achievements gained outside school, other learning experiences, in addition to traditional academic performance records. The emphasis is on encouraging whole person development as a means unto itself, and also as a reference in university admissions.

Four local self-financing degree-awarding institutions and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts [8] have also announced their entrance requirements for HKDSE holders.

The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) has produced a series of HKDSE Examination publications to provide more information on examination regulations and assessments, including the HKDSE Standards-referenced Reporting Information Packages of individual subjects with level descriptors and samples of student performance.

International Recognition

The HKEAA has also been working hard to ensure appropriate recognition of students’ achievement internationally should they choose to continue their studies abroad upon graduating secondary school.

In 2009, the United Kingdom’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service [9] (UCAS) conducted a study of the new HKDSE curriculum to benchmark standards against the GCE A Level, the U.K.’s school-leaving examination. As a result of the study [10], the HKDSE has been included in the UCAS Tariff [11], which allows comparison of standards between the HKDSE and other international qualifications, such as the Advanced Placement [12] (AP) program and the International Baccalaureate [13] (IB) in addition to the approximately 45 examination bodies around the world that UCAS is responsible for. The UCAS study was based on HKDSE curriculum and assessment guidelines, sample materials and assessment guidelines. After studying the standards of attainment at different HKDSE levels, UCAS tariff scores were allocated, indicating that the standard of the HKDSE is comparable to the GCE A Level for the purpose of applications to institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The UCAS equivalency study found that for all subjects except mathematics, the following applied:

Hong Kong (HKDSE)
Grading Scale
UK Grading Scale
5* A-A*
5 A
4 C
3 E

As a U.S. point of reference, UCAS applies the following Advanced Placement grading equivalency:

AP Grade HKDSE Grade
5 5
4 Between 4 & 5, but closer to 4
3 Between 3 & 4

The UCAS study did not give grade equivalents for A Level grades B and D, and it does not cover levels 1 and 2, although they would appear to be Fail equivalents. Mathematics was not included in the exercise because of its compulsory and extended components.

Australian education authorities, under Australian Education International (AEI), have also conducted equivalency studies and found the HKDSE to be comparable to the Australian Senior Secondary School Certificate. AEI is quick to point out, however, that Australian institutions have the autonomy and independence to set their own admission requirements.

Individual institutions in Australia, Canada, Macau, the United Kingdom and the United Sates have also been approached by the HKEAA to offer preliminary assessments of the HKDSE for admissions purposes. The results of those surveys, including five institutional responses from the United States, are available here [14].

A New Four-Year Degree

The new four-year undergraduate degree is designed to be more flexible than the current three-year degree, with more opportunities to combine subjects from different faculties. Unlike the current system where students apply to a particular program, students will not have to declare a major until the end of the first year so they can explore options, interests and strengths. They may also apply directly to a specific program, such as nursing or business, should they so choose.

Each university has the autonomy to define and build its own curriculum, but the general trend is toward a more multidisciplinary approach in which students will be required to take more general education subjects. At the University of Hong Kong [3], for example, students will be required to take six common core courses that cover globalization, China, science and technology and the humanities, plus English and Chinese courses. At Hong Kong Polytechnic University [15], the new undergraduate curriculum [16] has been designed to develop “all-round graduates with a high level of professional competence, social and national responsibility, and a global outlook with the attributes of responsible citizens and leaders of tomorrow.”

Most universities are offering students the option to take a major plus a minor, or a double major depending on their interests or desired career track. The minimum credit requirement for the completion of an undergraduate degree is 120 credits with a (publicly funded) cap of 150. A total of 30 to 36 credits in language and general education appears to be the norm at most institutions.

At City University [17], students undertaking a double major would be required to accumulate 45 credits in the primary major and 30 from the second. A single major at City University should not exceed 72 credit units, while minor fields of study require 15-18 credits. The general education component requires 30 credits, with further credit accumulation to a minimum of 120 to come from elective courses.

Another significant innovation in the new degree is the ‘experiential learning’ aspect that will require students to tackle problems and case studies from (and in) the real world. Engineering students, for example, would work on real structures, while an architectural student might consult with the community with regards to a particular project. Other subjects would have more practical work, a component of undergraduate studies that is much less common in university programs in East Asia than in the West.

These changes are all bold moves in a part of the world that has a long teacher-centric tradition of specialization at the university level. The new curriculum is expressly designed to move Hong Kong away from that model as it seeks to produce innovative graduates equipped with the skills required to secure the city’s place in the global economy.

The reforms are also designed to promote greater access to higher studies. Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive Donald Tsang said in October last year that the city was likely to raise higher education participation rates among young people to 65 percent, from approximately 30 percent in 2000. Under the old secondary structure, most students completed the first eleven years of schooling, but as many as 60 percent completed school after taking the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination at age 16, with just 40 percent continuing on to take A Levels and the final two years of secondary schooling. Under the new academic structure, there is just one public examination (HKDSE) at the end of 12 years of free and compulsory schooling, meaning a far higher percentage of students will be eligible for higher studies.

Tsang has proposed the formation of a fund with a total commitment of HK$2.5 billion (US$322 million U.S. dollars) for the development of self-financing post-secondary education. The fund would offer scholarships to students of self-financing post-secondary programs, and support institutions to enhance the quality of teaching and learning, he said. Tsang has also proposed that the government double the number of third-year university places to 4,000 for graduates of two-year colleges wishing to upgrade their skills.


With globally respected universities and researchers, English as the medium of instruction and China on its doorstep, Hong Kong is uniquely placed as a study destination in the current era of internationalization. Recognizing this, officials have set a target “in coming years” for 20 percent of publicly funded student places to go to overseas students (at the undergraduate level and 50 percent at the graduate level), which includes those from Mainland China. To attract greater numbers of international students, visa and enrollment restrictions have been relaxed, including a provision to the visa laws that allows foreigners to work for one year post graduation.

According to a report recently released by the UGC, “Hong Kong’s universities have a remarkable opportunity to become principal locations for understanding modern China…Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China, the quality of its universities and a recognizable and palatable environment (not least in terms of the rule of law and academic freedom) suggest that it can evolve its vital function as an international intermediary.”

The UGC report, Aspirations for the Higher Education System in Hong Kong [18], was prepared by an international group of sector experts and made 40 recommendations for the government, with a particular emphasis on internationalization.

While the report highlights Hong Kong’s unique position as a bridge between cultures, it is also quick to point out that the government has to be proactive in ensuring that the city’s institutions and students can leverage that opportunity. It states that some foreign universities will head straight for Mainland China, meaning that, “decisive action is required if Hong Kong is not to be bypassed and its real advantages discounted.” On practical measures for internationalization, the report argues that, “as a matter of urgency”, universities should develop international strategies and that this should be the responsibility of senior managers.

In addition to the internationalization efforts of local universities, international institutions are also being encouraged to set up shop in Hong Kong. One example is the Savannah College of Art and Design [19] (SCAD) which last year began offering classes from the former North Kowloon Courthouse. In an example of the kinds of incentives officials are willing to offer to the right international institutions, SCAD has picked up the renovation costs, but is leasing the premises from the government for 10 years at the token cost of one Hong Kong dollar (US$0.13).

The Queen’s Hill site mentioned in the introduction, which will accommodate up to 8,000 students, is reportedly also being offered at a bargain price to the right bidder, just HK$1,000 (US$129), while two other plots will also soon be available for expressions of interest. The Queen’s Hill site is being marketed around the world by the Hong Kong Economic Trade Offices, and while it is not expressly reserved for an international institution, or even a single bidder, officials are looking for high quality providers.

In addition to the new SCAD campus, Upper Iowa University [20] opened a site a decade ago, and there are reportedly 1,200 non-local accredited courses being offered through the city’s eight public universities.


Already a major player in international finance, Hong Kong is now enacting major reforms to its system of education that would also position it as a major regional hub for high quality education. The city’s pubic universities are already among the best in the region, and now with a realignment of secondary and tertiary systems with Western standards, the city is preparing to capitalize on current trends in transnational education to establish itself as a cultural and educational bridge between East and West.