Insight: greater clarity needed about what professional qualifications mean

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 9:39am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 9:39am

For students who are completing their higher education, a degree - even at master's level - is often not enough to secure their future employability. Many need to start some professional training and prepare for another set of qualifications.

Universities in Hong Kong have traditionally worked hand in hand with professional bodies across fields such as medicine, law, accountancy and engineering to try and create a more seamless transition from academic study to ensure young people have professional competencies for the workplace.

The awards should not be seen as another certificate to list on a CV, but as a measure of competency

Yet the lines between academic and professional education are blurring as institutions focus on employability. Collaboration involves recognition of course content by awarding bodies to allow for fast-track entry or exemptions towards the professional award.

The advantages are that this attracts students to university courses, supports institutions by providing industry-relevant content and contacts, helps prepare students for the world of work and ensures a flow of talent for the professions.

Across China, universities are waking up to the value of such alliances. International professional bodies - operating like commercial businesses themselves - are engaged in a race to sign up higher education institutions to prepare students for their awards. Sometimes they involve commercial partners such as Kaplan , getting them to deliver the teaching if the university faculty does not do it themselves.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) for the finance industry and Association of Chartered Certified Accountants for accountancy are the most established in China. Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales and Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia are also rapidly building their university partnerships.

While overseas awards are not recognised for local practice in areas such as law, accountancy and insurance, they are well received by the international business community in China, as well as domestic enterprises active in the global economy.

If professional qualifications are to address the skills gap in China, there needs to be a culture of trust between international awarding bodies, authorities, and public and private sector education providers.

While the market is currently driving demand, it could be undermined by state control, such as the Ministry of Finance's proposals to restrict the audit activities of those holding international qualifications, including Hong Kong's Certified Public Accountant.

Unethical practices in the booming education industry are another challenge. Piracy of outdated teaching materials, false advertising over exam tips and poor teaching are just some examples.

As qualifications grow, there will be a shortage of teachers with relevant work experience. Capacity is a major issue when there are greater rewards in business than teaching.

For this reason, CFA does not officially recognise any commercial providers preparing students for its exams, although it does have partnerships with a limited number of universities in the mainland and Hong Kong to incorporate its curriculum into their courses.

The Education Bureau has recently completed consultation on a new credit accumulation and transfer system (Cats) which would allow for the long-awaited recognition of learning between institutions. Credits towards professional awards should be included, with clear information as to where they lie within the qualifications framework (QF).

There could be greater visibility of professional awards within the QF. Students and employers need to understand the difference, for example, between the local Certified Financial Planner qualification, which can be completed up to level 2 within a sub-degree programme, and CFA, which can only be studied up to level 1 in the final year of a bachelor degree and requires at least three more years of study and work experience afterwards.

Clarity about what these awards represent is needed. For those signing up, the awards should not be seen as another certificate to list on a CV, but as a measure of knowledge and competency, and a demonstration of what it means to be a professional. Amid qualifications inflation, the latter can easily be overlooked.

Katherine Forestier is a senior research associate at the Hong Kong Institute of Education