Hong Kong risks losing out if it limits its investment in higher education to the 18 per cent of youngsters who manage to win a place at university each year, an Education Commission (EC) working group member has warned. Cheung Man-bui - a member of the EC's working group reviewing the interface between senior secondary education and higher education - called for a diverse higher education system catering for people of different abilities. He said there should be opportunities for those who do not excel in examinations or are not academically driven. In a knowledge economy, the overall quality of the workforce, not just that of a privileged few, had to be raised so that the average worker would be able to adapt to changes and pick up new knowledge and skills when the need arose, he said, echoing a prevailing view within the EC. 'We hope there will be more channels for admission into universities instead of just one formal examination,' he said. 'We should have a spectrum of quality people, and not just rely on workers from abroad. There is an urgent need to upgrade our workforce.' According to the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, the Government is planning new senior schools that provide vocational courses including media, design and hospitality. Universities have also been called on to develop their own areas of excellence, and for some to focus more on vocational education. The two studies on higher education - one by an EC working group and the other by the University Grants Committee (UGC) and commissioned by the Secretary for Education and Manpower - are also looking at issues associated with a more diversified system. As well as the introduction of four-year programmes, universities are expected to broaden their admissions criteria and impose stronger quality control mechanisms. The UGC group is understood to be considering changing the funding formula to help those universities that are traditionally strong in research to receive more funding. But this approach could face opposition. 'Employers may think there is an overlap of resources with eight tertiary institutions here, but all universities need to have their own specialists in basic disciplines. You need to have research to have good teaching,' said City University's vice-president Wong Yuk-shan. The UGC group is also looking into the governance of institutions and the post-secondary sector, which is bracing for rapid expansion under the Government's policy of increasing the percentage of young people with access to higher education to 60 per cent during this decade. Universities have already jumped on the bandwagon by offering associate degree (AD) courses, expecting demand to soar over the next few years. But a major concern of the UGC group is how the AD programmes will work in tandem with local bachelor degree programmes. Universities would have to create more upper-year places to accommodate future graduates. But given the limited government funding, said one member, universities might have to reduce their intake of first-year students to make room for the AD graduates. The quality of future AD courses is another concern. The head of the EC working group on continuing education, Charles Wong Kit-hung, said providers were expecting an adequate supply of qualified teachers but they faced problems finding suitable college premises. Mr Wong, who is chairman of the Federation of Continuing Education in Tertiary Institutions, is also worried that courses are too market-driven, and that there could be an over-supply in popular areas such as business and information technology. 'The Government will have to step in and provide the courses that have been overlooked if there is an imbalance, because the courses will all run on a self-financed basis,' he said. By March or April, his working group would be providing information on the sub-degree courses. The courses make up what he calls the 'alternative pathway', popularising more flexible routes to higher learning.