The teaching of liberal studies in Hong Kong schools will be changed to include more content about mainland China and less on current affairs while pupils will also be taught separately about national security issues, education chiefs say.

Following Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s Policy Address on Wednesday, the Education Bureau announced Thursday that the subject would be renamed, along with a series of other changes including halving the number of teaching hours devoted to it.

Education bureau
Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung announcing proposed plans to reform liberal studies. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Introduced in 2009, liberal studies is one of the four core subjects in the senior secondary curriculum. It is aimed at developing critical thinking and enhancing social awareness.

But Lam and other pro-Beijing politicians say aspects of the education system helped fuel last year’s pro-democracy mass protests. Lam claimed in May that some people are feeding schoolchildren “false and biased information” and it was important to protect students from being “poisoned.”

Under the new plan, the curriculum will be reduced and grading changed to a pass/fail system. Liberal studies will still be a compulsory core subject but students will no longer have to conduct an associated project known as Independent Enquiry Study.

A list of “suitable textbooks” would be provided to schools after the bureau has screened them. According to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung, the contents would now only include “mature topics” and the subject was not for “news discussion.”

Lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen
Lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen responding to the government’s proposed liberal studies reforms. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Pupils would also have to join a study tour to mainland China as a part of the curriculum, but the tour would not be graded. Liberal studies would include more content on national education, but Yeung denied this meant the overall subject had become “national education”.

Details of the changes would be discussed with the Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

Political scapegoat

A now-resigned lawmaker for the education sector, Ip Kin-yuen, slammed the proposed changes for ignoring the report of the Task Force on Review of School Curriculum, which was released two months ago.

“Why is there no study or evidence to support the proposal?” Ip said. “This is done so casually, there isn’t even a document… is the Education Bureau actually doing professional educational work? Or are they actually destroying the profession?”

Ip said liberal studies had become the scapegoat for last year’s social unrest. “They have to hide the responsibility of the government’s misadministration for causing such uproar in society,” he said.

Carrie Lam 2020 Policy Address
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

“As the subject’s name suggests, liberal studies should be able to open up boundaries… Through discussions, students can explore in-depth topics such as personal development and globalisation,” Ip added. “There’s no way that they should rule out [the discussion of] news.”

In her policy address, Lam said the “previous deviation from the subject’s objective” must be rectified so students could “analyse contemporary issues in a rational manner and learn about the development of our nation, the Constitution, the Basic Law, the rule of law and so forth.”

Earlier this year, the education bureau implemented a voluntary screening scheme for liberal studies textbooks, sparking concerns of self-censorship as publishers amended the textbooks. The phrase “separation of powers” was deleted and warnings added before content about civil disobedience.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.