Cisco Systems and the Vocational Training Council (VTC) have set up a two-year course on computer networking, starting in autumn, that is expected to attract up to 700 students. Supporters said the Cisco Networking Academy, to be located at Hong Kong Technical College in Chai Wan, would ease the shortage of trained IT staff. However, the close relationship between Cisco and the VTC is raising concerns that the council, which runs nine technical colleges and institutes and 24 centres in the SAR that train about 100,000 people a year, may appear to be endorsing Cisco's networking products, or in effect help to market them. Rival networking vendor 3Com, which offers a similar networking training programme for schools, claims Cisco's programme overly focuses on its own hardware and will leave graduates lacking in all-around networking skills. Even as the Government dreams of turning Hong Kong into a leading research centre, more pragmatic voices claim there is a lack of skilled IT staff providing support to businesses. The pace of technological change means staff with vendor-led credentials are filling the gap left by university computer-science degrees. Credentials such as Microsoft Certified Engineer (MSCE) or Novell Certified Engineer are sought widely by employees - who usually take courses offered by vendor-approved private schools - and employers. In the US, Cisco claims students who pass the Cisco Academy course and exam, which involves 280 hours of classroom time and hands-on training on Cisco hardware, can find jobs as Cisco Certified Networking Associates earning about US$45,000 per year. In Hong Kong, the VTC estimates students who complete the Cisco course can expect to earn starting salaries of HK$12,000 per month. The Cisco Academy course costs HK$21,000 a year. The Cisco course will be integrated into the VTC's computer science department. At no cost, Cisco will supply to the VTC the curriculum and some networking hardware, as well as training for teachers. In return, the VTC will help set up Cisco training courses at each of its technical institutes. The company has signed up more than 1,000 schools, colleges and universities on four continents as Cisco Networking Academies, including 11 mainland universities. The Chinese University of Hong Kong planned to set up a Cisco Networking Academy on campus soon, sources said. Why are vendors so eager to set up education programmes? Simply, education helps drive brand and product awareness, and IT staff skilled in a vendor's equipment are more likely to buy it for their company's use. 'Yes, I admit there is some [marketing function],' Lee Ngok, executive director of the VTC, said. 'But as long as there is no exclusivity, there's no problem. 'Could we still adopt other vendors' programs? Yes, we could. There is no monopoly here.' Mr Lee said the use of Cisco's name would help to attract students and also find them jobs. Cisco officials argue that about 70 per cent of the course work involves general networking knowledge. 'This is a pedagogically sound programme that is not focused on our products,' Dominic Scott, Cisco's marketing development manager for education programmes in North Asia, said. 'The idea is really to teach the fundamentals.' Daphne Tham, 3Com's education director for Asia-Pacific, said: 'Students who are entering the IT job market will encounter diverse networks and need to have industry-standard skills to succeed. Cisco's curriculum is Cisco focused.' 3Com offers its own two-year NetPrep programme aimed at schools and universities, which Ms Tham claims will provide better job training. 'A hundred per cent of our curriculum, even the hands-on aspects, can be learned using other vendors' equipment,' she said. NetPrep graduates also win a networking certification from the National Association of Communication Systems Engineers, an independent US industry body, rather than from 3Com. 3Com, which signed up Yunnan University last year as a 3Com regional training centre, does offer a specialised course focused on its own networking products. Ms Tham admits that 3Com also would expect to have its name attached to any NetPrep programmes it sets up.