Education minister denies changes to liberal studies are bid to push national education in Hong Kong schools

Kathleen Magramo
·4-min read

Hong Kong’s education minister has dismissed claims that reforms to liberal studies are an attempt to push national education, saying the overhaul is aimed at cultivating an understanding of mainland China.

However, the city’s largest teachers’ union said on Thursday the education sector was angry with the Education Bureau for ignoring the opinion of educators on the changes to the programme and expressed concern they would turn liberal studies into “brainwash-style civic education”.

According to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, the revamped curriculum for secondary schools will cover issues related to Hong Kong, the mainland and the world in a bid to bolster understanding of the nation.

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“We hope that students will have [a better grasp] of Hong Kong, national concepts and global issues,” he said.

Students should recognise the city’s role in the development of China because it would be important to their future, he added.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung. Photo: Nora Tam
Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung. Photo: Nora Tam

On Tuesday, his bureau issued a consultation paper on the reforms to schools, proposing that content on national security, lawfulness and national security be expanded.

Under the revisions to the subject, two-thirds of the subject modules would focus on the mainland, while topics such as personal development and interpersonal relationships would be removed.

Yeung argued it was normal to expand topics about the mainland as the course should be aimed at cultivating students‘ national understanding and identity.

What is liberal studies in Hong Kong and why is it controversial?

He stressed that discussions about Hong Kong under the new framework would touch on issues such as the “one country, two systems” principle governing the city’s relationship with the mainland, the Basic Law and the constitution of the People‘s Republic of China. “Most of the subjects are extracted from the previous ones,” he said. “We are not creating a new subject and we are trying to consolidate the current liberal studies subject with some reductions in the content.”

A lighter study load would allow students to allocate more time to learning other core subjects.

But Tin Fong-chak, vice-president of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said the organisation considered the consultation to be paper political intervention in the curriculum.

“Is the point to allow students to learn about the country or to only feed them certain ‘correct’ information?” he asked. “The union is not opposed to students learning about the country, but to properly understand it, there must be discussions of both the good and the bad. Discussions of the shortcomings of a government or country do not stand in the way of the development of society or students’ learning progress.”

Hong Kong to rename liberal studies and require students visit mainland China under wide-reaching reforms to subject

Tin also said liberal studies had been a good way for students to learn about their place in society and had prompted some pupils to think about how they could be better citizens.

Cheung Yui-fai, director of the union’s education research department and a liberal studies teacher himself, said the new proposed curriculum was a “step backwards” to simply passing along information and only requiring rote learning from students.

“The assessment model now does not need students to show any high-level critical thinking skills,” he said. “They only need to repeat what they have learned or perform simple analysis. This is not just a loss for our students, it could even hurt them ultimately.”

Liberal studies, first introduced in 2009 as one of four compulsory subjects for senior secondary students, was initially aimed at developing students’ critical thinking skills and enhancing awareness of social issues.

The subject has been embroiled by controversy in recent years with pro-Beijing figures blaming it for instilling anti-China sentiment among the youth and radicalising them, while others have deemed the teaching materials biased.

Liberal studies currently has six modules: personal development and interpersonal relationships, Hong Kong today, modern China, globalisation, public health, as well as energy technology and the environment.

The name of the course is expected to be changed as early as next September, before the new academic year.

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