Community & Education Hong Kong

University of Hong Kong plans to scrap astronomy major as students ‘vote with their feet’

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

HKU is the only university in Hong Kong that provides an astronomy major programme. The programme started in 2008.

University of Hong Kong.

University of Hong Kong. File Photo: Apple Daily.

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

The university’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans said in a reply to its Science Society of its student union that “The reason for this is simply that students are not choosing to enrol on these majors.”

“The number of graduating students in each of the last five years has been 1, 6, 3, 5, 4 in Astronomy and 1, 6, 1, 6, 4 in Maths/Physics,” Evans wrote on Monday. “Students have simply voted with their feet.”

Efficient use of funds

“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 his faculty’s commitments to all existing students will be unchanged, and students will meet with their major conveners to explain the changes later this month. 

Katherine Chung, the internal vice chair of the Science Society, told the university’s campus TV station that she was disappointed by the decision.

She said that the faculty was well-known for providing a diversified programme of majors to students, and that the low enrollment was not a good reason for scrapping the courses.

She added that the decision will affect the operation of related student societies, and said she understood that the Physics Society will ask the university to reverse the decision.

HKU astronomers

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

Or Kwan-nok, the chairman of the student union’s Astronomy Club, said on a RTHK programme on Wednesday that the school should consider how to attract more students to study the subject.

“Many new scientific findings are coming from astronomy studies,” he said. “It is moving backwards against the world trend.”

Or said there was a significant difference in studying astronomy as a major programme than as a minor programme, and that it may reduce student interest.

He said the club will communicate with the school to urge them not to cancel the major.

‘Unfortunate’ 

Lam Chiu-ying, the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory who graduated from the mathematics/physics major at HKU in 1971, said it was sad and unfortunate that the combination will be cancelled.

He told Ming Pao that physics and mathematics are the king and queen of science respectively: “Even if there were small amount of students, it should be maintained – those who are interested could be the brightest students.”

He added that universities should not only care about students’ interests, and that HKU as a highly ranked institution – it should therefore have the courage to offer important programmes.

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University of Hong Kong plans to scrap astronomy major as students 'vote with their feet'