Effectiveness of Hong Kong’s ‘3-3-4 Education Reform’: A Policy Evaluation

A major education reform in Hong Kong finally saw its implementation in September 2000, after a series of deliberations and public consultations between and among key stakeholders spanning 10 years. The reform overhauls the system from pre-primary education to university. It is officially known as the New Senior Secondary Curriculum (NSSC), but it is popularly referred to as the “3-3-4 Education Reform”. For the purpose of consistency and easier reference, this paper uses its popular term — “3-3-4 Education Reform”.

This policy paper evaluation focuses on the effectiveness of the “3-3-4” Education Reform based on the perception of undergraduate students in the Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). As the paper elaborates in the “Evaluation Design and Methods” section, these students have completed at least senior secondary education under the education reform.

Before the implementation of the education reform, Hong Kong students were required three years of junior secondary education (S1, S2 and S3) and two more years of secondary education (S4 and S5). In order to proceed, they needed to take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE). If they passed the HKCEE, they moved up to the remaining two more years of secondary education (S6 and S7). After seven years of secondary education (S1 to S7), they were only able to advance to university if they took and passed a second exam: Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE). The total number of years for university education before was three years; thus, the original configuration of “3-2-2-3” of education after pre-primary.

In academic year 2009-2010, the NSSC, with the new academic structure, was fully implemented. This changed the configuration from “3-2-2-3” to “3-3-4”. Along with this was the renaming of the simple “secondary” term, which had a total of four years, after “junior secondary” to “senior secondary”, indicating a movement by accomplishment. The new academic structure narrowed down the total number of years in what now is known as “senior secondary” from four to three, and added an additional year to university education, increasing its number of years from three to four. In short, the NSSC required three years of junior secondary, another three years of senior secondary, and four years of university.

Along with the new academic structure was the elimination of the government-mandated exams that served as measures for preparedness to move up for an additional of two years of the original secondary and another for the original three years of university education. The HKCEE and the HKALE were both discontinued; instead, a single exam took its place: Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE).

The first cohort of students under the 3-3-4 scheme graduated from senior secondary in 2012. Provided they get the necessary marks, they were already in their first year in university by academic year 2012-2013.

Why the “3-3-4 Education Reform”?

In a collaborative document, the Curriculum Development Council, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority and the Education Bureau outlined the holes in the education system that the reform seeks to plug up. Three of them are the following:

First, the education reform addresses the disruption in education cycle of Hong Kong students created by the failure to move up to S6 (secondary 6, the first of the last two years before taking another exam for university). Only those who passed the HKCEE were able to proceed to the last two years of secondary before university; the rest had to go through S5 again and then retake exam, or look for employment. The 3-3-4 scheme changed this; it provides all students the opportunity to complete the junior secondary and senior secondary cycle without any exam in between. Second, the old-cohort education in Hong Kong was highly filtering in nature and led to premature diversion of students to academic or occupational areas. The 3-3-4 scheme aims to arrest this by making both junior secondary and senior secondary curricula more dynamic, encouraging of different interests and abilities of students. And, third, the old cohort focused more on teaching, practice and memorization in preparation for two public examinations. In contrast, the 3-3-4 scheme encourages more experiential learning, provides more time for self-discovery and talent, and facilitates holistic development in both their junior and senior secondary education. These reform initiatives were espoused in the mantra that was introduced:  “through multiple pathways, to further studies, training and employment” was introduced (Curriculum Development Council, Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority and Education Bureau, 2013).

In the reform proposal titled, Learning for life, learning through life: reform proposals for the education system in Hong Kong (2000), the Education Commission highlighted the priority of enabling students to enjoy learning, enhance their effectiveness in communication, and develop their creativity and sense of commitment. It also outlined the key principles on which the 3-3-4 Education Reform rests: student-focused, “no-loser”, life-wide learning, and society-wide mobilization. These principles govern the operationalization of the reform and resonate with the overall aim of the education for the 21st Century: “To enable every person to attain all-round development in the domains of ethics, intellect, physique, social skills, aesthetics according to his/her own attributes…” (Education Commission, 2000).

To achieve direction in the evaluation of the effectiveness of the 3-3-4 Education Reform, the paper contextualizes the principles, objectives and intended outcomes of the reform to five key areas: (1) influence on students on the selection of their course in the university based on their individual interest and talent; (2) improvement of students’ communication skills, creativity and critical and analytical skills, and sense of commitment; (3) students’ preparedness for university based on length and quality of secondary education; (4) students’ perceived employability after completing senior second secondary only and university; and (5) students’ assessment of the relevance of the HKDSE.


In assessing the extent to which the reform has achieved its intended outcomes, the needed to go back to the reform’s ultimate beneficiaries — students. The reform’s impact on curriculum and teaching-learning can best be gleaned from the extent to which students are convinced of the inherent added value in the education reform. Respondents were 248 students coming from different undergraduate programs in EdUHK. A requisite in the choice of respondents was their having completed at least senior secondary under the 334 Education Reform. To the advantage of this evaluation, majority of the respondents turned out to have finished both junior and senior secondary under the education reform implemented in the academic year 2009-2010.

Qualitative approach using questionnaire survey was adopted. The questionnaire (see appendix), which was administered using random sampling, was designed to capture students perception of the effectiveness of the education reform based on the fundamental principles of the reform: Student-Focused, “No-Loser”, Quality, Life-wide Learning, and Society-Wide Mobilization (Hong Kong Education Commission, 2000). Policy evaluation was carried out against five key areas that operationalize the principles and summarize the aims of the reform in terms of competitiveness in the 21st century:

  1. Influence on the selection of course in the university based on interest and talent
  2. Improvement of communication skills, creativity and critical and analytical skills, and sense of commitment
  3. Preparedness for university based on length and quality of secondary education
  4. Employability after completing senior second secondary only and university.
  5. Relevance of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

The questions were answerable by “Yes” or “No”. Due to limitations of time and the possible complication arising from a self-assessment of the differences within levels of perceptions, the group eliminated the Likert-type scale. While the variance between perceptions may not be properly calculated, polar and close-ended questions provide a firmer picture of student response. Close-ended questions prevent confusion and inconsistencies in meanings or definitions (The Writing Studio, Colorado State University). A questionnaire measuring results based on the Likert scale can be a focus in a subsequent research that also identifies specific variables influencing perceptions in the same areas.

There were three areas where the questionnaires were administered: Mong Man Wai Library, Learning Commons and Canteen. These were areas identified for high concentration of students between 10AM to 5:30PM. Responses were sought on a voluntary basis.

Scope and Limitation 

The evaluation does not include the reform’s implication on curriculum, teacher training and preparation, and effectiveness of teaching-learning. Although it is the assumption of this reform that responses in the questionnaire offer a glimpse into these areas based on how students perceive the quality of their training in preparing them for university and the job market. There was also limited time to undertake interviews to provide more depth to the responses in the questionnaire.


This section of the paper provides the consolidated results from the questionnaires administered to a total of 248 respondents. The respondents came from 20 different undergraduate programs comprising seven academic program clusters: Bachelor of Education (124), Bachelor of Music (54), Bachelor of Arts (33), Bachelor of Social Sciences (22), Bachelor of Science (13) and Bachelor of Health Education (2). They represent five undergraduate levels, with the two largest composed of first year (112) and secondary (80) students; the rest are broken down as follows: third year (37), fourth year (17) and fifth year (2). The diversity in the respondents presupposes diversity as well in at least preferences, inclinations, and training.



Findings and Analysis Per Key Area

In appreciating these data, it is imperative to analyze them against the five key areas that guided the creation of the summary. These are the same key areas that operationalize the five principles of the forum and the ideal Hong Kong graduate in the 21st century.

Key Area 1: Influence on the selection of course in the university based on interest and talent 


The goal of the reform is to broaden the learning options of students, on top of the traditional streams of Science and Humanities and Arts. Majority of the respondents (54%) indicated that it has. The difference is not, however, significant as to ascertain the role of curricular changes due to the reforms in the selection of students of their university degrees based on their interest and talents. This could be attributed to the traditional thinking of lucrative employment revolving around traditional streams, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). But even within STEM, a study (2012) by Kutnick, Chan and Lee of the Hong Kong University describes early choices made by Hong Kong students on their course in the university as early as age 14, even before actual encounter with engineering concepts. It would be interesting to revisit this study after two to three years when the first graduates within the full cycle of the education reform would have already found employment or established their own businesses. Particular attention may need to be placed on less popular industries that are more interest- or talent-driven, and assess an upward trend in terms of employment share. One of these industry could be the “arts, entertainment and recreation” which, based on employment distribution by industry section, has only had a steady 1.1% share of the population in 2010, 2015 and 2016 (HK C&SD). Over the same period, the “important and export trade” industry ranks highest at 13%, followed by the “other social and personal services” at 11.9% and “construction” at 8.5% (HK C&SD).

Key Area 2: Improvement of communication skills, creativity and critical and analytical skills, and sense of commitment  



When results touching on this area in questions 6, 7 and 8 were averaged, 50.7% said they were confident about the improvement. But when percentages were broken down per question, while majority indicated a positive response in question 6 — communication skills (55%) and 7 – creativity and critical and analytical skills (52%), 137 against 248 (55%) hinted at their sense of commitment remaining low.

It would be of interest to qualify sense of commitment. But what is commitment? Commitment can be looped into the fifth principle of the reform: society-wide mobilization. In the context of the reform, society-wide mobilization reinforces the obligation of every member of the society, including learners, to contribute to the society (Hong Kong Education Commission, 2000),  “Commitment also facilitates cooperation by making individuals willing to contribute to joint actions to which they wouldn’t be willing to contribute if they, and others, were not committed to doing so…” (Michael, Sebanz & Knoblich, 2016). How students feel about their sense of commitment is an essential indicator of the effectiveness of the reform. But commitment is much influenced in the classroom as it is in the home. As Ng (2009) described in her research, experiential learning, issue-based teaching, and even the personal belief of the teacher are critical factors that help propel the civic participation of students. It could be that the weakness of the reform could also be found in sufficiency of retooling and training given to secondary school teachers, to better equip them for the education reform.

Key Area 3: Preparedness for university based on length and quality of secondary education



A slight majority (54%) of the respondents said their secondary education has been effective in terms of preparing them for university, in terms of curricular content and training. Interestingly, however, the reverse is true at 52% on whether the length or number of years in secondary education has been sufficient to prepare them for university.

Key Area 4: Employability after completing senior second secondary only and university


The general sense is obtaining a university degree better assists students in clinching a job after graduation. But while 50.8% perceive this, 70.2% of the same respondents still express the need for further studies (i.e. master’s degree) and specialized training after university to get the job that they want and deserve. While the reform provides space for those who are unable to make the cut for university to earn income, only 24.6% of the total respondents are convinced that a job awaited them after completing only senior secondary education.

Based on statistics from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, unemployment among 15-19 has played around a high of 17% and a low of 10%, and around a high of 7% to a low of 5.1% covering the period 2013 to 2016. For the three-month period from January 2016, unemployment among ages 15-19 increased from 15.1% from 12.16% over a similar three-month period from November 2015-January 2016 (HK C&SD). These figures indicate the continuing struggle among young people, much more those who don’t have high credentials, i.e. university degree, to position themselves for employment. The sense among majority of the respondents that it is highly unlikely for those only with senior secondary education to get a job is rooted in conditions on the ground. The same manifests failure of the reform not only to increase the competitiveness of students but align market and industry opportunities to the greater mandate of the education sector.

Key Area 5: Relevance of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education 


Expected to ease pressure on students by cutting down the government-mandated exams from two to a single gauge to fitness for university, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) is seen by majority of the respondents (54%) as relevant form of measurement. But what the HKDSE may enjoy in terms of reliability, it fails in terms of its objective of unburdening students — only 30% experienced less pressure taking it. This could be due to more pressure to prove one’s worth for university, especially being products of an improved secondary education. It could also be indicative of the unresolved issue of mounting stress, which the United Nations Children Fund reported in 2014 affects 90% of Hong Kong students. Performance metrics in secondary education system may still be leaning more on voluminous school work, maintaining the focus on subject-specific academic competencies, which appear to also be the focus of HKDSE. Based on figures from the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, there is a year-to-year decline in both the number of students taking the HKDSE, from 71,479 to 61,981. Correspondingly, the number secondary schools participating in the HKDSE also also on a steady year-to-year decline (532 to 498) — what could be more telling of the fewer number of Hong Kong students entering senior secondary school every year, caused more by Hong Kong’s low birth rate.

Overall Perception of the Effectiveness of the Reform 

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-9-14-18-amQuestion 12 summarizes the intentions behind the full questionnaire. Limited as it may be, it develops a general idea of the overall effectiveness of the 334 Education Reform from the perspective of the respondents. It is clear though from the results that the respondents are divided, with the difference in numbers of those saying that the reform has been effective higher by only 1.6%. The respondents are not highly confident about the tangible and concrete benefits of the reforms at least to them.


The success of the 3-3-4 Education Reform rests on how it further widens access to quality education, provides enabling characteristics in the pursuit of one’s interests and talent, and a stronger sense of self in relation to the society. Hong Kong’s education system has gone a major re-landscaping in order to make it more attuned to global standards and keep its human resource as competitive as its counterparts across Asia and the world. But while the 3-3-4 Education Reform is gaining ground, its impact appears weak from the perspective of students. The narrative and rhetoric of changing mindsets have not been translated to tangible benefits to students, in terms of significant increments in confidence levels as regards preparedness for university and the job market. It is interesting to note that while majority agree that a university degree entitles them to more employment opportunities, more highlight further studies as an additional investment to increase their chances at getting the job that they want. This could either mean growing ambition on the part of students, or tight competition over employment opportunities that provide good pay and ensure work-life balance. In the same breath, it projects a sorry state for those who, despite the reform’s single-measurement and assessment instrument (HKDSE) for university, would fail to make it to advance beyond senior secondary.

Developing special skills set and increase professional competencies for the job market seems more a rule than an exemption. And the pressure is more for Hong Kong, known globally as among the world’s most competitive economies. The education reform then needs to be viewed against how it puts equal premium on students’ ability to contribute to society, as espoused in the reform principle of “social-wide mobilization” and the 21st century learner with a strong sense of commitment. But, as a big majority of the respondents indicated, the reform has impacted the least on their “sense of commitment”.

While the HKDSE remains to be relevant in the assessment of the respondents, it has not lessened the burden and pressure they experienced in taking it — what was one of the arguments behind the discontinuation of HKCEE and HKALE. This could mean approaches to their secondary education under the 3-3-4 reform was still reminiscent of conditioning under the old set-up.

It might, however, be premature to pass judgment on the full extent of the effectiveness of the education reform. The first cohort under the new academic structure is yet to complete university education; they have yet to test their employability and competitiveness by the time they graduate next year, 2017.

(This policy evaluation paper was developed by graduate students Mark Raygan Garcia [Philippines], Gary Tracy Ying Lee [Hong Kong] and Yaxin Hu [China]). It was submitted as a requirement in the course Public Policy and Governance: Processes and Techniques under the Master of Public Policy and Governance program, Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.) 

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