Making the grade
The recent decision by the Nursing Council of Hong Kong not to extend professional accreditation to an associate degree course run by a private institute of technology - which caused much anxiety among the 140 students about their future - has once again drawn public attention to the 'plight' of associate degree holders.
It is unfortunate that the issue has been blown out of proportion. As a professional body, the Nursing Council has to uphold high standards. Besides, it is common that academically accredited programmes may not automatically become professionally accredited.
The two accreditations are for different purposes, though it is incumbent on the educational bodies to ensure that professional programmes are capable of passing both accreditation tests.
Although problems of quality and accreditation have emerged occasionally, many associate degree courses are still run by reputable providers, including colleges attached to publicly funded universities.
Having said that, associate degrees suffer from the lack of a clear academic prospect. When they were introduced in 2000, as a self-financed mode of higher education to give youngsters failing to get into universities an alternative route of further study, they were meant to be essentially standalone academic qualifications. The policy goal was to achieve a higher education rate of 60 per cent in the city.
Things have not worked out quite that way. Employers find associate degrees neither here nor there, even though the government has since placed them within the qualifications framework.
Whereas diplomas and higher diplomas are sub-degree qualifications, with a vocational orientation, associate degrees are mostly general education courses marketed on the possibility of 'articulation' - or being able to transfer - to degree programmes.
The introduction of associate degrees has not helped stem the demand for degree places. On the contrary, precisely because associate degree students now feel they are one step closer to degree studies, they are not content with leaving at the associate degree level.
When articulation to degree programmes becomes blocked because of insufficient places, associate degree students feel doubly victimised - having to pay full-cost fees yet not getting the expected returns in terms of recognition, quality and facilities.
Hence, the government is on the right track to introduce measures to improve the quality and recognition of associate degrees, as unveiled in the recently released Post Secondary Education Sector Phase Two Review.
Enhanced resource support (nominal-premium land provision, extending the maximum repayment period of interest-free loans, and introducing a HK$100 million quality enhancement grant scheme), improved financial assistance and means-tested loans to students are certainly very welcome steps.
Additional resources, coupled with scaled-up quality assurance processes, and complemented by more transparency and easier information access, should help lift the quality of programmes and drive out poor providers in the market. But they will not necessarily ease the bottleneck in higher education. As the quality of associate degrees improves, students may feel they are better prepared to progress to full degree education.
In today's Hong Kong, parents and students consider a university degree essential. It is difficult to turn back the tide, and associate degree education, by default, has pushed up the overall demand for degree places. It is unrealistic to expect all associate degree holders to progress to degree programmes in government-funded universities.
Instead, the expansion of degree places must be left to private institutions. Granted, it is urgent for the government to consider the future of post-secondary education within the context of a vibrant private university sector.
To ensure that such an articulation boom does not simply boost market demand at the expense of degree quality - as experienced when associate degrees were introduced - the government must stringently monitor the quality of private degrees and their accreditation.
It must support enhancing the quality of private universities, and seek ways to help make tertiary study more affordable for fee-paying students. Otherwise, the high cost of higher education will still mean that lower fees for private students come at the price of good quality.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank. He is also president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education