Sub-degree qualifications used by weaker students as a stepping stone to higher education still have a place in Hong Kong, but the institutions awarding them should be more tightly regulated, a government task force has recommended. The Task Force on Review of Self-financing Post-secondary Education made the recommendation after hearing from parents, schools and students. They found one of the two stand-alone qualifications, the more academically focused associate degree was useful. The second scheme is the skills-focused higher diploma. Holders of both types of qualifications can apply to enter the third year of a four-year bachelor’s degree programme. About 62,000 students were enrolled in these sub-degree programmes offered at 20 institutions, including private ones and self-financing arms of government-subsidised universities, in the 2016/17 academic year. Why local private tertiary institutions may need to find their own niche to survive Associate degrees have been criticised for being expensive – they are not subsidised by the government unlike bachelor’s degrees at the eight publicly funded universities. Others have claimed holders of sub-degree certificates do not earn much more than those with a secondary school diploma. Task force chairman Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said: “Instead of simply abolishing associate degrees, the focus should be on how to enhance sub-degree education for societal development and help students to further their studies or enter the workforce.” He suggested the government look into ensuring the curriculum and teaching of sub-degree programmes equipped students sufficiently for careers or further study. The task force also suggested a clear and transparent policy of deregistering institutions whose sub-degree or degree programmes fell short of their stated aims. This should be done after a “reasonably long trial period”, he said. “We need a system to handle programmes that are not performing ideally, such as having a low enrolment or not having enough teachers,” he said. Some private institutes offering sub-degree or degree qualifications have seen low enrolment numbers in recent years, with Hong Kong Nang Yan College of Higher Education only taking in six Year One students this academic year, while Gratia Christian College took in 21. Dr Chui Hong-sheung, president of Gratia Christian College, said he was not worried about getting the cut, but contested whether a school is performing well should be based on quality rather than enrolment numbers. “It does not mean that we have no quality if we do not meet the expected number of students,” he said. “When it comes to education, as long as a programme has quality, even if it only trains eight or 10 students, it is still a contribution.” The task force also suggested reviewing and updating of the Post Secondary Colleges Ordinance, which governs all institutions providing accredited programmes that are privately funded. This may potentially affect the private arms of government-subsidised universities as they would need to be detached from the universities proper. The public is invited to contribute its views to the task force by August 31. It will publish a final report and make recommendations to the government by the end of the year.