Call to make higher education readily available and affordable

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 December, 2014, 10:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 December, 2014, 10:58am

Letters have been written to this paper in response to the issue of university admissions, brought up by this column about a month ago.

One challenged the view raised in the column that there should be more university places, specifically, government-funded places, to meet young people's rising aspirations. In today's age of qualification inflation, the writer claimed, there might not be enough jobs around for an increased supply of degree holders. Another who wrote in supported the idea that universities should diversify their admissions criteria rather than relying heavily on scores to tap diverse talents.

The concern about an inadequate supply of degree-level jobs is understandable. Who wants to see youngsters with a tertiary education while away their time doing repetitive, manual work? But rather than limiting the growth of higher education, it is the government's responsibility to diversify the economy and provide the impetus for the growth of new sectors in line with the modern economy, hence creating higher-level jobs.

Academics have long argued for the need for a more diversified economy. Increasingly, students have become better aware of the options for degree studies, rather than going after business and finance, which nonetheless remain highly popular subjects. Nursing, for one, has attracted more interest as Hong Kong braces itself for an ageing society. Other sectors such as the cultural industry are in need of fresh blood to create new ideas that travel far and wide in the internet age. Future entrepreneurs could be nurtured through support for start-ups.

Statistically, there are far more students qualified for university education than there are places for them. In the last Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination, 26,307 students made the grade for university entrance, but there were only about 15,000 government-funded places available.

Those eyeing further education also include the growing band of associate degree graduates, some of whom managed to get into degree studies on the strength of their GPA (grade point average) in community colleges. Some, however, were admitted into self-financed programmes run by universities alongside the government-funded ones, paying doubled tuition fees.

Increased social awareness is indispensable for social progress

Universities are set to increase their annual provision of government-funded senior year undergraduate places for sub-degree graduates to 5,000 from the current 4,000 by 2018-19, following a pledge by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his last policy address.

This is encouraging, but a mere increase of 1,000 means many qualified students will still be left with few options other than going for expensive courses locally or abroad. Many also have little idea about the quality of education they could be in for.

In today's era of mass-education, it is time for parents and students to adjust their expectations for university education. Quality education will open doors, but not necessarily lucrative jobs, as it did decades ago when a university degree was a coveted, rare commodity. Instead it can open one's mind and, not least of all, prepare one to be a citizen capable of making sound judgment in a complex world.

A former Australian university vice-chancellor once wrote that university education lays the foundation for a civil society. Increased social awareness is indispensable for social progress.

The now defunct UK Council for National Academic Awards described the aims of higher education as the development of students' intellectual and imaginative powers; their understanding and judgment; their problem-solving skills; their ability to communicate; their ability to see relationships within what they have learned and to perceive their field of study in a broader perspective.

It also affirms the cultivation of the individual, in the sense of the development of an enquiring, analytical and creative approach, independent judgment and critical self-awareness.

As a world-class city, Hong Kong should strive for further progress by making higher education more readily available and affordable.