The number of top-up degree places for associate degree graduates at publicly funded universities will be doubled under the education minister's plan released yesterday. Announcing the move, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung made 21 other recommendations aimed at addressing concerns over the quality and recognition of associate degree programmes. The package will now go to the Legislative Council education panel next week and then to the Finance Committee for approval. The report recommends creating publicly funded Year Two university places in the coming academic year, and not in 2010/11 as previously scheduled. This means the number of Year Two places at University Grants Committee-funded universities would increase from 967 to 1,927. The report also recommends encouraging private universities to expand self-financing top-up courses for sub-degree graduates. It also proposes extending a loan scheme - the Financial Assistance Scheme for Post-secondary Students - to cover such graduates. Several measures are aimed at freeing up resources at sub-degree institutions so they can spend more money on teaching - for instance, doubling to 20 years the tenure of start-up loans for institutions. The loan would be interest-free for the first 10 years. Mr Suen said the plan involved a new HK$100 million grant for institutions to provide language courses and other learning programmes to help weaker students. The report also suggests subdegree programme providers be given priority to use vacant school premises, and charged just a token fee for land to build campuses. A proposed loan scheme for the students would be extended to cover living expenses, costing HK$390 million in the coming academic year and rising to HK$420 million in 2012/13. Mr Suen dismissed criticism that introducing associate degree programmes was a mistake. 'We have seen some shortcomings in sub-degree programmes since their introduction in 2000, but the aim of this review is to find out these shortcomings and seek ways to address them,' he said. He noted cases where associate degree graduates were not recognised by employers because they had not passed language subjects in open exams. 'But they were only individual and exceptional cases,' he said. 'We observe that most institutions have been sticking to strict admission standards, and one area we will continue to work on is to ensure that they adhere to these standards.' He said the bureau did not support a 'significant' increase in the number of associate degree programmes given the plentiful supply courses. Victor Lee Sze-kuen, chairman of the Federation for Continuing Education in Tertiary Institutions, called the HK$100 million grant a 'first step' for better community colleges. If the money was well-spent, the amount should be increased, he said. 'More bridging courses are the way forward for the expansion of higher education in Hong Kong and I have heard of one or two community colleges that are planning to apply for accreditation to become private universities.'