16 October 2017
by Futao Huang

Universities look to the US general education model

The US general education model for undergraduate studies has emerged with prevalence in both mainland China and Hong Kong says Professor Futao Huang in University World News.

United States ideas of higher education, including general education, have been exported to East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan since the end of World War II. Thus, at least at an institutional level, undergraduate education in these systems basically consists of general education programmes and specialised or professional programmes.

In recent years, the US general education model has also emerged with surprising prevalence and gained high status in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Mainland China

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the reform of undergraduate curricula was modelled on the former Soviet Union and formed a perfect example of the professional curricula model.

Similarly to the former Soviet Union, at a system level, the majority of Chinese higher education institutions were grouped into several types per corresponding fields of study. Normally these types were directly relevant to various professional or vocational fields and focused on training professional or vocational workers.

Although little is known of the exact time or in what form the US concept was transferred to mainland China, it is generally agreed that the impact of US general education ideas on mainland Chinese universities has been obvious and considerable since the early 2000s. This is especially true of research-intensive universities.

To illustrate, Peking University, one of the top universities in China, provides a good example. In addition, Peking University established the Yuanpei Program in 2001, emphasising the provision of non-professional education. In 2009 it was renamed Yuanpei College and took on several new characteristics.

For example, students are enrolled without a specialty, enter one of the two broad areas of study (humanities and sciences) and take mainly general education courses and ‘platform courses’ for the first year and a half.

From the latter part of their second academic year, they are given the opportunity to choose their courses and speciality according to their own needs and interests and switch to the study of specialised programmes.

Other leading universities such as Fudan University and Sun Yat-sen University have also established new academic units modelled on the practices of Yale University or other US universities since the early 2000s. Influenced by these leading universities, the vast majority of Chinese students’ undergraduate studies consist of both general education or Tongshi Jiaoyu in Chinese and specialised programmes.

In most cases, general education places a particular emphasis on expanding basic education and on cultivating various abilities and potential strengths. In other words, undergraduate education is not restricted to the transmission of limited specialised knowledge, but also includes the process of developing students’ abilities and sophistication.

Hong Kong

The British tradition of education was established in Hong Kong as early as the late 19th century. All universities enrolled students based on specialised fields or professional subjects; the length of study was three years; and the goal of university education was to produce narrowly specialised graduates to be employed in the labour market in Hong Kong.

However, since 2012, with the shift from a three-year university system to a four-year system, all universities in Hong Kong have been asked by the central government of Hong Kong to introduce and develop liberal or general education curricula.

These curricula focus on the development of broad intellectual components. They include: lifelong learning through learning how to learn; increased global awareness; a better appreciation of Chinese heritage and cultures; a better understanding of the inter-connective nature of knowledge between and within disciplines; an appreciation of human enterprises such as art and literature; and a knowledge of the increasing role that technology and science play in everyday life.

However, because each institution was free to formulate its own general education programme and curriculum, the net result has been general education with some unique Hong Kong features, as well as considerable diversity across institutions.

Among the most salient Hong Kong characteristics are the emphasis on breadth and multi-disciplinarity as mechanisms to counter the perceived narrow specialisation associated with the British model, a greater receptivity to the participation of programmes and the inclusion of courses that fall outside the traditional liberal arts and sciences, a stress on technology within the liberal or general education science category and the use of outcomes-based teaching and learning as a common structuring frame.

For example, the University of Hong Kong developed a new Common Core Curriculum in 2012. With the implementation of the new four-year undergraduate curriculum, the University of Hong Kong has developed a more flexible structure for its undergraduate studies. Although specialisation still accounts for the largest share of total credits, 36 are reserved for core compulsory courses.

Toward the US model?

Compared with Japan and South Korea, mainland China adopted the US general education model voluntarily and in an informal way as late as the early 2000s. Its impact on Chinese undergraduate education is limited in scale. There is little evidence to show that the US general education model, especially its teaching material or content, has been formally and completely accepted by either the Chinese government or individual universities.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, the introduction of US general education was strongly driven by local authorities and also supported by individual universities and industry. On the one hand, the borrowing of the US general education model has been partly affected by the global trend of higher education reforms; on the other hand, it was also considered to be a way of linking up with the Chinese higher education systems.

As a result, general education programmes in most Hong Kong universities appear to be a mixture of both US philosophy and the traditional cultural values of mainland China.

It is hard to make the case that either mainland China or Hong Kong has followed the US general education in a fully-fledged way. However, clearly incorporating the US philosophy of general education into the two systems has resulted in providing a much wider range of pre- or non-professional programmes to students.

More importantly, it has encouraged individual universities to improve the quality of the students they turn out – students who have all-round skills and competencies in an era of globalisation and knowledge-based societies. Despite huge differences in undergraduate studies between mainland China and Hong Kong, it appears that both systems have endeavoured to reform their undergraduate education modelled on US approaches.