Associate degree plan is a good first step

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2008, 12:00am

The number of associate degree programmes has expanded ninefold since they were introduced in 2000. Because only 18 per cent of the city's secondary school graduates go on to university, many who are left out hope these self-financing programmes can serve as a stepping stone to a full undergraduate education.

Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way. Set up as part of the government's wide-ranging education reforms, the programme has seen many holders spending a small fortune only to find their associate degrees do not help them gain entry to a university or find work in the relevant fields. These problems were highlighted last week when students about to graduate from a three-year nursing programme were told it had failed to be accredited by the Nursing Council.

Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung yesterday announced a series of proposals intended to win greater recognition for associate degrees, especially among employers. They also aim to expand university places for associate degree graduates, though the Education Bureau admits that a large proportion will still be unable to gain university entry immediately upon graduation.

Whether the measures will prove to be an effective long-term solution remains to be seen. But they show officials have belatedly realised that the system, in its current form, is unsustainable.

Under the new system, associate degree students will be given more grants and loans similar to what university students are getting. Land, vacant schools and other facilities will be made more easily available to institutions looking to upgrade their associate degree programmes. All these will need an extra HK$100 million in new funding over three years. The measures will, hopefully, relieve cost pressures on both students and institutes.

But apart from finance, the critical issue is ensuring standards and quality. One problem with the proliferation of associate degree programmes is that standards vary greatly. Some institutes are found to have lowered admission standards in order to admit the required number of students to make their programmes financially viable. Having collected hefty fees from the students, instructors are under great pressure to compromise standards in issuing them a diploma. Without assurance of quality, bosses and universities are, understandably, wary of taking on these graduates.

A key to ensuring the quality of graduates is that both admission and exit standards must be vigorously enforced. Mr Suen now proposes setting up a committee to liaise between the government and accreditation bodies to devise best practices for sub-degree course providers. It stops short of being an independent accreditation system, which may ultimately be necessary to guarantee their quality and enforce standards. But it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

The measures, if adopted, should help arrest further declines in public confidence in associate programmes. But it will take a long time before this new post-secondary sector becomes fully accepted as a viable pathway to higher education and employment.