Strong case for subsidies for associate degrees

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2007, 12:00am

The dramatic expansion of post-secondary education in recent years has spawned thousands of associate-degree graduates who feel cheated by the lack of opportunities. They remain unable to find places in university degree courses and their qualifications are under-recognised by employers. Many face years of repayment of education loans because they have had to pay their own way through courses.

This is one of the major challenges inherited by the new secretary for education after sweeping education reforms. As we report today, Michael Suen Ming-yeung has promised to address it through discussions over the next three months with stakeholders.

He has given no financial undertakings, such as fee relief or more government-subsidised university places, for those who graduate. It is hard to see how they can be avoided if the issue is to be resolved equitably. But his pledge to give priority to establishing greater academic recognition for associate degrees is to be welcomed.

The problem is one of both structure and finance.

Graduates are falling into a qualification gap. It is difficult to move on to further education or a job. Employers are not that familiar with associate degrees and tend to equate them with full secondary education.

After the launch of a new sector of higher education, it is to be expected that it can take some time for qualifications to gain full recognition. With hindsight, however, it can be argued that the government should have converted the existing diploma courses provided by vocational institutes into associate-degree courses and introduced transfer arrangements between them and the universities. Instead, it opted for self-funding community colleges that charge full fees and threw the field open. In the event, only colleges established by the publicly funded universities became established institutions.

Many associate-degree students hoped to be able to progress to a full degree course. But in 2006-07, there was only about one university place for every eight to 10 people with an associate degree or higher diploma. There are also no credit-transfer arrangements among the community colleges run by the different universities.

The imbalance is compounded by serious quality issues. Being self-accrediting, universities can, within a framework set by the government, determine what is going to be taught and what the requirements are. As a result, standards vary among associate degree graduates, and universities tend to admit graduates from their own community colleges.

Mr Suen is right therefore to say that the value of associate degrees needs to be clearly defined, and to focus on recognition of students' knowledge through a credit-points system. That will give them better options either to work for a time before returning to study or pursuing studies by other routes.

But the question of financing remains. Amid talk about the need for young people to undertake further education to meet the demands of a knowledge-based society, it is hard to see why associate degrees should continue to be self-funded when school, vocational and university education is subsidised. It is bad enough that graduates have to fight for recognition of their qualifications, let alone then being saddled with debt. In fairness, and in the best interests of Hong Kong, there is a strong argument for a voucher system to help them pay their fees and an independent accreditation system to establish the bona fides of their qualifications.