Lessons in degrees of futility
His placid look belies the fact that he is under a burden of debt and expects tough years ahead. Working as a clerk at an IT company since completing an associate degree course last year, Marco Cheng Leung-tung is prepared to juggle work that involves night shifts and studying for a degree.
He epitomises tens of thousands of sub-degree graduates in Hong Kong who are obsessed with obtaining a degree. In April, he signed up for an engineering course at the Open University of Hong Kong although he knows full well that having a degree is no guarantee of finding rewarding employment.
A colleague of his who is a university graduate is making only a few hundred dollars more than he does a month. 'Half of my college mates want to do a degree. Employers will go for someone with a sub-degree more than someone with Form Seven qualification; and similarly, someone with a degree more than someone without,' said Marco, 24.
Hong Kong has seen rising aspirations for university education in the decade since the government unveiled its goal of providing post-secondary education for 60 per cent of college-age students. That spawned a spate of associate degree (AD) and higher degree (HD) programmes offered by private colleges and continuing education arms of universities. Many HD programmes date back to the colonial era, when they were seen as a form of post-secondary, practically oriented training.
The rapid growth of sub-degree places has also fuelled youngsters' desire to acquire a full degree. According to government statistics there were 52,100 associate and higher degree students in the past academic year, a dramatic increase from 8,895 in 2001.
Up to 65 per cent of university-age youngsters in Hong Kong now have access to higher education, academics say. But the fact remains that most sub-degree graduates end up disillusioned, unable to get into any of the eight publicly funded institutions. Many have opted instead for self-financed programmes - some of which are of dubious quality - paying more than the annual tuition fee of HK$42,100 for publicly funded degree programmes. On the strength of their top academic scores, only a tiny per cent of sub-degree graduates are given degree places at publicly funded institutions each year.
Educators have repeated their calls for the government to increase the number of first-year and senior degree places to accommodate the swelling demand.
Walter Yuen Wai-wah, Polytechnic University's vice-president for academic development, says: 'If Hong Kong wants to be an education hub, it should study carefully how many places there should be. How many will be enough? This is a policy issue. Some of the young people denied a chance of a university education have the potential and are worthy of being nurtured. Do you want to see an outflow of the best students in Hong Kong to the mainland?'
He warns of social instability should the aspirations of many of young graduates remain unmet. 'Social stability hinges on whether routes for progression are open to young people. University life is a turning point for many as it exposes them to a new lifestyle and gives those from poorer backgrounds prospects of an improved lifestyle. If there is no such route, young people will feel hopeless.'
For years, the government set a quota of 14,500 places in the first year of degree programmes. But why should that quota remain unchanged, asks Yuen: 'It could be replaced by a certain percentage figure instead, and be adjusted upwards or downwards according to the student population.'
Fung Wai-wah, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, calls the obsession with degrees a 'bubble' - something with dubious value. Employers are far from impressed with degrees offered locally by little known local or overseas institutions, he says. Now is the time not just to increase the number of university places, but also to consolidate the sub-degree sector to ensure quality.
'Some institutions even accept students who failed in the nowdefunct Hong Kong Certificate of Education examination; the qualifications obtained by these students will not go unrecognised by employers,' he says.
'Parents and students see a degree as a basic entry ticket to the working world. The trend for further study has gone too far. People study just to get a sense of security. But there may not be any jobs for them when they graduate. The students who want to 'clean up their record' by obtaining a full degree will be in the worst situation. They will have to take out loans worth tens of thousands of dollars to pay for their tuition.'
Like many of his peers, Marco is repaying government loans borrowed for his associate degree study. He declined to say how much he owes, and holds out little hope of getting a better paid job later.
'Many of my friends think they will be out of work after getting a degree,' he says. 'It depends on what a person wants whether it is worth getting a degree with borrowed money. It can be worth it from the perspective of a learning experience, but it may not be so from the perspective of future prospects.'
Many more could follow his path next year, when an estimated 70,000 students sit the first Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination, competing for the limited, coveted first-year places at the publicly funded tertiary institutions.
'There is a need for sub-degree programmes to give students a second chance of getting into university, but the scale and pace of development of the sector should slow down,' Fung says.
The number of University Grants Committee-funded senior year undergraduate places is set to rise to 2,500 next year, from the current 2,000, and to 4,000 by phases from next year onwards. PolyU and City University, both major providers of sub-degree programmes through their affiliated community colleges, have been allocated additional government-funded articulation places.
But the rise in places is far from enough to meet the soaring demand. Professor Chung Yue-ping from the Chinese University's department of educational administration and policy calls for a more diversified sub-degree sector offering a wider range of subjects to school leavers. Not all need to be articulated with degree studies, he says.
'Business courses are in vast supply, whereas courses that require investment in equipment like graphic design are limited. For the sake of its economy, Hong Kong should develop creative industries and other technical fields. We can train technicians at the post-secondary level, for example. We may not need many engineers, but we need technicians and electricians to meet the growing public concern for safety. Not everyone needs to go for a degree.'
Still, Chung remains convinced of the value of an expanded educational system. His study based on census data in 1996, 2001 and 2006 showed sub-degree graduates generally fared better than secondary school leavers, with a 4.2 per cent unemployment rate compared with the latter's 5.9 per cent.
'A mature education system gives people like late bloomers a second chance of having further education. Young people need to take time exploring what they want to do,' he says. 'Education is an important condition for the development of a civil society. An expanded system also allows the territory to train the manpower needed in response to changing economic needs, provide opportunities for adults to learn and allow learning for leisure purposes.'