Since it came into being 10 years ago, the associate degree programme has been treated like an outcast in the circles that matter. Unable to shake off the stigma of being a receptacle for underperformers and derided as a 'dead end' degree, the programme produces graduates who have little hope of either getting a decent job or into a decent university. Ironically, those who do find work are sometimes paid less than even high-school dropouts with three years of secondary schooling.
This is the story of the 'educational sandwich class'. The programme was conjured up by the government to take care of academic hopefuls who don't quite make the grade.
Statistics tell the tale. In the third quarter of last year, the jobless rate in Hong Kong was 4.4 per cent - 4.9 per cent among middle-school leavers, 4.4 per cent for high-school graduates and, at the bottom of the heap, 5.5 per cent of associate-degree graduates.
The fatal flaw of this 'educational sandwich class' is its poor social acceptability in the eyes of prospective employers and regular universities. These people lose out twice. After having shelled out more than HK$100,000 and invested two or three years of their lives, all they got in return was a piece of paper nobody accepts.
The scheme is suffering the same fate as most other new-fangled government initiatives: it is half-baked and starved of support. It appears to be heading for the scrap heap of history; all the signs are that it will soon be replaced by private university degree programmes. But this educational alternative, again, has substandard written all over it.
Academic experts tell me that 10 to 15 per cent of students in the associate degree programme could probably be upgraded to the regular university programme. As a global city, Hong Kong is falling behind in the number of subsidised university places it offers. The figure currently stands at 18 per cent; that should be increased to at least 25 per cent in the near term, to take into account those suited to a university education.
As for the rest, let's be honest: they are better off in quality post-secondary vocational education that gives them job-ready skills. Not every student is meant for the generalist education in universities.
With great fanfare, the government announced the so-called six new economic pillars. So far, it has been all talk. It will remain empty talk unless the government starts with education. Vocational training for the majority of students in the associate degree programme is an intelligent alternative that supports these new industries, while giving graduates jobs that help our economic diversification.
Giving academically weak students a generalist education consigns them to market irrelevance and academic limbo. Worse, it unrealistically raises their expectations without offering any means of self-development and survival.
The job market is a crucible. Employers demand employable vocational skills. Without quality assurance among institutional providers, the programme is mistrusted by the community. Higher-diploma holders, by contrast, have practical skills attractive to employers.
Associate-degree holders delude themselves into thinking they are better qualified than high-school graduates. But, the truth is, the sandwich class has become the 'leftover' class.
In 2001, our first chief executive set an ambitious target of providing post-secondary education for 60 per cent of college-age students. By hastily adopting the self-financing model, education officials locked themselves into playing the numbers game. Consequently, the number of students in the associate degree programme shot up sixfold, from 3,700 to 23,000 in 10 years. The mad rush towards quantity has dashed any hopes of decent quality.
There is no cheap way to run higher education. In the harsh reality of the academic world in Hong Kong, self-financing for higher education is the road to mediocrity and unacceptability.
The controversy dogging the associate degree programme has diverted our attention from the problems of the self-financing university programmes. Enrolments in private universities have increased dramatically, from 268 in 2001/02 to 9,800 in 2009/10.
The government has allocated six parcels of land for the development of private universities and, if all goes according to plan, the number of privately funded university students will rise by another 8,000. But land allocation is not a sufficient condition for success. Far from learning a bitter lesson from its associate degree fiasco, the government is about to make another half-hearted effort which will become a major failure. These unsupported institutions are under pressure to break even or repay government loans. Under the guise of 'equal access to education', indiscriminate admission is a huge temptation, exercised partly through 'pre-university' programmes.
I am a hardcore sceptic of private universities, which, unless there is a rigid scheme of quality assurance in place, will find it hard to attract quality students. That task is made even harder as local recruitment sources dry up because of our declining birth rate.
These institutions will be indifferent at best. Except, this time, it will cost students even more to get their hands on a diploma that is of little use.
A hard-headed solution is to boost the number of subsidised degree places for eligible students, while shepherding the academically challenged ones into strategic vocational training. It would be good for them, and even better for employers and our economy.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is vice-chairman of the New People's Party and former chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research