Seven Hong Kong publishers have participated in an advisory service provided by the Education Bureau to review liberal studies textbooks amid public concern over quality and political bias.

The move came after former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa blamed the subject for making Hong Kong’s young people more radical and for the violent protests over the fugitive bill saga, while other pro-establishment lawmakers earlier suggested canceling the subject as mandatory in the Diploma of Secondary Education exam, which is the university entrance exam in the city.

The education sector urged the bureau to fully explain the new service or else it could be seen as a political intervention in the current political situation by scrutinizing the textbook’s content.

On Monday, Deputy Secretary for Education Hong Chan Tsui-wah wrote in the bureau’s blog that there have been concerns over radical teachers and biased teaching materials – especially those on liberal studies – and that they will adversely affect students and spread hate and prejudice.

Hong said the bureau fully understood the public concern. They decided to bring in a professional consultation service for publishers to “improve the quality” of the existing material published in liberal studies’ textbooks.

Hong said the consultation service was a consensus between the bureau and Hong Kong Association of Professional Education Publishing.

A spokesperson from the bureau said the group was formed by academia, special subject inspectors and educators, but no name list was provided, the Ming Pao Daily reported.

Liberal studies has been a compulsory subject since 2009 for Hong Kong senior secondary school students to expose them to issues of significance in Hong Kong and the world and foster critical thinking skills. It is a compulsory subject for students looking to enter local universities.

Unlike other subjects, the bureau does not scrutinize reference materials for liberal studies. Publishers still print and sell the reference materials as textbooks. But it was understood that teachers in general tend to use their own teaching materials and the textbooks are used for reference only.

The bureau said publishers who send their textbooks for review have to agree to follow up the recommendations from the bureau seriously.

The bureau’s websites showed seven publishers have participated in the service and they hoped to finish and revise the textbooks by the end of the ongoing school year. Those who participated in the advisory service would be named on the bureau’s “textbook list.”

Ip Kin-yuen, the education sector lawmaker and chief executive of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union said they don’t know the nature of the so-called professional consultation service. He questioned if the submissions were truly voluntary and who would be responsible for providing suggestions and the standards on offering such opinions.

Veteran liberal studies teacher Cheung Yui-fai said the bureau should believe in the professionalism of teachers when they prepare teaching materials and no consultation service was needed.

Teacher Tin Fong-chak said liberal studies was a subject with an open and diversified approach. Publishers have been doing well to decide on their own the selection of content based on the education bureau curriculum framework, even the viewpoints that the government may not agree with, Apple Daily reported.

He worried the “consultation service” was another way to scrutinize what to teach, which will affect freedom of discussion on the campus.

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