The number of associate-degree places will be increased from 7,000 to 9,000 in September, the Secretary for Education and Manpower said yesterday. This means that about 40 per cent of secondary school leavers will be provided with access to higher education. Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun also said associate-degree graduates would be entitled to apply for jobs covering five more civil service grades. An extra 30,600 associate-degree places - which are lower than degrees but equivalent to higher diplomas - will be offered by 2010 to meet Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's 10-year plan to give 60 per cent of 19 to 20-year-olds access to higher education. Graduates from associate-degree programmes are already entitled to apply for civil service vacancies such as those for police inspectors and immigration officers. Critics say the programmes are not widely recognised in the business sector. 'We hope the private sector will follow our lead and recruit associate-degree graduates for suitable job vacancies,' Mrs Law said. The participation rate for higher education would increase from 32 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent by September. She said there were 7,000 associate-degree places for Form Five and Seven graduates in the 2001-02 academic year and an extra 2,000 would be provided from September. Meanwhile, native Putonghua speakers or new arrivals from the mainland may be hired to improve language teaching in schools. Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower Cheng Yan-chee said yesterday the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research had explored the possibility of bringing Putonghua teachers from the mainland to Hong Kong schools.