Legislative Council
Panel on Education

For Discussion at the 21 March 1997 Meeting


This paper sets out the background and arguments on the normal length of full-time undergraduate courses.


Education Commission Report No. 3

2. The present structure of tertiary education was formulated after a comprehensive and intensive consultation exercise conducted by the Education Commission in 1988. The Commission's recommendations, as published in Report No. 3 (ECR 3) and accepted by Government in January 1989, have taken into account the school system, the interests and views of the community and represent a broad consensus on the subject at the time. The Commission recommended and the Government agreed that:

    at all tertiary institutions funded by the then University and Polytechnic Grants Committee (UPGC), the objective should be for all students to be accepted for a normal three-year first-degree programmes after Secondary 7, following a two year sixth form course leading to the Advanced Level examination or to a combination of Advanced and Intermediate levels;

    the length of new and existing first degree courses should be determined by the tertiary institutions, in accordance with educational requirements, subject to the established procedures whereby course proposals are considered and assessed by the UPGC; and

    the length of first-degree courses at all UPGC-funded institutions should in principle be the same for any given subject.

Present Position

3. The normal length of full-time undergraduate courses is three years. Both the University Grants Committee (UGC) and the Government are prepared to consider on academic grounds exceptions to this norm. At present, a total of 21 programmes (9 full-time and 12 sandwich programmes) covering a number of disciplines (e.g. medicine, dentistry, engineering and a few allied health subjects) now take four to seven years to complete. About 5 000 students are currently studying these courses.

Views of UGC-funded Institutions

4. At a media briefing jointly given by the Heads of the eight UGC-funded institutions in November 1996, they were asked about their views on the issue of the normative length of undergraduate study. In response, the Heads expressed their consensus that they would prefer 4-year to 3-year undergraduate courses from an educational point of view. They also pointed out that the international norm, except in Commonwealth countries, is to have 4-year (or longer) undergraduate courses.

5. However, the Heads also stressed that any steps taken to implement the change in the normative length of undergraduate study must be progressive and should not unduly disrupt the existing education system . The issue should also not be looked at in isolation from the other sectors of the education system as the duration of undergraduate study would have significant impact on the secondary sector. They recognised that a wide range of issues such as the length of secondary education, the interface between the secondary and the tertiary sectors, the quality of teaching and learning resulting from any change to the length of undergraduate study; and the resource implications for the education sector as a whole should be carefully examined.

UGC's Review of Higher Education

6. In its recently published report on Higher Education in Hong Kong, the UGC revisited the main arguments for and against maintaining the normal length of undergraduate courses at three years. An extract is at Annex.

7. It is said, primarily by academics, that students would benefit from an additional undergraduate year to overcome the discontinuity between learning styles and academic expectations at secondary and tertiary levels of education. It is also said that a fourth year is needed to extend the depth and breadth of courses, taking into account the virtual explosion of knowledge and interdisciplinary developments taking place in many subject areas, and the need to improve language and communication skills.

8. We agree with the UGC, however, that as these factors have a bearing on the school sector, we need to consider education as a whole, not its components in isolation. It would be necessary to consider a range of issues, including whether secondary education should be of six or seven years' duration; how the secondary and tertiary sectors could interface better; the quality of teaching and learning and the resource implications for the education sector as a whole. We need to improve the liaison between schools and universities regarding the aims, objectives and relevancy of school education for students who must undergo an effective transition to higher education. We are already taking active steps to achieve a more effective interface between the different authorities responsible for education and examinations.

9. We agree with the UGC that for the great majority of students the three-year course will, after 1998, continue to satisfy both the "general" and "specific" needs of an undergraduate education. We also note the UGC's view that this may, however, be a matter which the Education Commission would wish to consider in a wider context than is appropriate for the UGC.

10. We therefore decide that, as proposed by the UGC, the normal length of an undergraduate course should remain at three years following two years of sixth form study at least for the foreseeable future. After all, the current system of three-year full-time undergraduate curriculum following two years' sixth form study has only stabilised in its current form in 1994. Meanwhile, however, proposals to lengthen the period of study for specific programmes at the undergraduate level should continue to be considered by the UGC on a case by case basis where justified on grounds of academic and community need.

Education and Manpower Branch
14 February 1997

Last Updated on 14 August 1998