The University of Hong Kong (HKU) has voted to cancel its major in astronomy and a joint mathematics/physics major for new students starting from the academic year 2018/19.

The plan was formed on the basis that few enrolled and graduated from the programmes in the last five years.

However, the decision made by the Board of the Faculty of Science on Tuesday was met with doubts over whether the vote met the criteria of a majority.

The University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

During the meeting, 38 members voted yes, 32 voted no, and 12 abstained, out of the 82 total votes.

HKU student media Pokfulam Herald reported that after the meeting, students and school staff members questioned its legitimacy as, according to the usual practice, the vote should only be passed with more than 42 votes.

Citing a source, the student publication also said the chair of the meeting initially only provided yes and no options, but not abstention. The option to abstain was added upon questions from those attending the meeting.

A HKU spokesperson said that a majority of the board agreed on the motion to cancel the two majors.

HKU astronomers
HKU astronomers announcing new findings in 2015. Photo: HKU.

HKU is the only university in Hong Kong that provides an astronomy major programme, which began in 2008. The joint mathematics/physics major has been offered for decades.

Students can still minor in astronomy, mathematics or physics, or choose a double major in the latter two.

In the last five years, 19 graduated from the astronomy major, while 18 graduated from the joint mathematics/physics major.

The university’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans said in a reply to HKU’s student-run Science Society in March that “students have simply voted with their feet.”

“The Faculty cannot afford to mount majors or courses that have small numbers of students, we have an obligation to use the funds provided to us efficiently and teaching niche programmes is I am afraid too inefficient and results in a waste of academic time that is better spent in increasing the quality of education for larger numbers of students,” Evans said at the time.

Lam Chiu-ying
Lam Chiu-ying. Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong.

‘Myopic views’

But Lam Chiu-ying, a former head of the Hong Kong Observatory who majored in maths and physics in the 1970s, disagreed.

“Science we now all know is THE future. The Government is pushing for STEM,” Lam wrote in a letter to departing HKU President Peter Mathieson last month.

“The Dean and indeed all university colleagues are obliged to expand, strengthen and enrich learning opportunities in science, to prepare students to collectively serve society for its long-term sustainability.”

As an example, he said that Imperial College London runs a “physics and music performance” degree programme and its admission numbers since 2013 were 0, 2, 2, 0 and 2.

“But IC takes pride in retaining the programme because it is demanding and attracts bright students. The Astronomy and Mathematics/Physics Majors are in the same category. To delete them on the grounds of small student numbers is untenable. It would tell the world that HKU has lost self confidence and academic courage,” he said.

“It should not let myopic views like ‘saving a few dollars today’ overshadow its fundamental, long-term education responsibility and obligation.”

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.