School leavers, who are unable to pursue the traditional higher education route, are turning to associate degrees and top-up degrees. As the government pushes to make higher education more accessible, institutions are turning their attention to this growing market to meet the needs of students who are proving that higher education need not be the preserve of the elite. 'Continuing education providers are no longer only providing programmes for working adults. They are also offering programmes for secondary school leavers as this market is growing much more quickly,' says Dr Simon Wong, dean of Baptist University's School of Continuing Education. Baptist University, the first tertiary institution to offer associate degree programmes in Hong Kong, has seen enrolment numbers in this area surge tenfold to 3,000 students, from just 300 in 1999. Modelled on the North American community college system, Baptist University's associate degree is a two-year programme focusing on general education. Graduates can then automatically move on to one of 26 partnering institutions in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada to obtain a full bachelor's degree on completion of a further two years of study. Business, accountancy, marketing, communication, psychology and physical education are some of the more popular subjects for associate degrees. The importance of education, fuelled by the implications of a knowledge-based economy, has contributed to this staggering growth. 'There were previously very few university places and those who could afford it went overseas, but increasingly the government is opening up tertiary education to more young people,' Wong says. Education providers are anticipating further market growth with the launch in 2012 of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education, which will integrate the two previous secondary school public examinations into one. 'There will be an even larger pool of students graduating from Form Six, but the number of government-funded university places will remain the same. There will be much more demand for associate degree programmes,' Wong says. The challenge, he says, is to maintain the quality of programmes, especially at a time when the government is encouraging the opening of more self-financing academic institutions. Baptist University has maintained its standard of quality by insisting that all its programmes be run on its campuses. The university expanded its facilities in 2006, with the launch of a HK$360 million campus in Sha Tin, adding 3,000 more places for full-time subdegree students. 'We welcome the opportunity for young people, but at the same time we see the need to maintain the quality of the programme, otherwise it will not do justice to the [students],' Wong says.