Quality checks for all self-funded colleges in Hong Kong long overdue
It has been reported that chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has agreed to the request from self-funded colleges to provide education vouchers of HK$30,000 per year to students enrolled in these institutions.
While financial assistance in the form of vouchers will provide immediate relief to students, the long-term impact of such a measure needs to be thought through.
When Milton Friedman first advocated introducing school vouchers in the 1950s, the idea was to replace monopolies in the public school system with a system of competition – by giving parents the freedom to choose.
Judging from the details available so far, the higher education vouchers being mooted are only a form of financial subsidy which will not necessarily enhance competition.
Giving students vouchers for self-funded colleges would only help improve standards if the government installed a unified mechanism for quality assurance for both publicly funded and self-funded colleges.
The University Grants Committee recommended installing such a system as early in 2010, but the government declined to adopt this recommendation. Without such a system, it is difficult to compare the quality of a programme offered by a publicly funded university with a comparable one provided by a self-funded college.
Without robust and transparent quality assurance, giving students vouchers for higher education risks putting more students into programmes which do not meet the necessary professional or academic standards.
Although the vouchers will reduce the financial burden of students eager to obtain university degrees, the students stand to lose if, after investing considerable time and money, they find that the programmes they enrolled in are not up to the standards required.
Complaints lodged with the Legislative Council by a professional body are a case in point. It claims that the clinical psychology programme offered by a local self-funded college in conjunction with an American for-profit university does not match the professional standards mandated by local and international professional bodies.
Without quality assurance, the availability of more funding for self-funded colleges through vouchers could result in more students enrolling in substandard programmes. These colleges get more business, but great harm could be caused to society and the students in the long term.
Legco should not approve funding for higher education vouchers unless the government promises to introduce a unified quality assurance system.
Regina Ip, legislative councillor