End game on associate degrees

Editorial | 28 Jul 2017

There should always be a purpose for every educational program.

For instance, higher diplomas are usually associated with vocational skills, while bachelor's degrees are often regarded as the basic qualification for most jobs in the commercial world.

However, it has never been as clearly defined when it comes to associate degrees.

Since they were introduced by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2000, there have been government attempts to give the program a defined status that could stand on its own right.

Unfortunately, those attempts have failed.

With employers being the final judges, associate degrees are too general to be regarded as equivalent to higher diplomas that equip the holders with special skills, and are nowhere close to the bachelor's degree offered by universities.

It is right for the new education secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung to go ahead to review the program, as such a review is indeed overdue.

When the Finance Committee approved the government's demand for HK$3.6 billion to, among other things, subsidize young people pursuing self- financed bachelor's degrees at institutes recognized by the administration, there were also calls for the subsidies to be extended to associate degree students.

Saying "no" to those calls, Yeung justified his snub with the excuse of the imminent review.

As a matter of fact, there is a real problem with the associate degree program in its current form. When it was first introduced, the stated aim was to increase the number of students with post-secondary qualifications. Less talked about was its design to keep school leavers from joining the labor market, at a time of economic slowdown that left government finances in the red, and boosted unemployment.

Associate degree courses were designed to be two to three-years in duration, but later standardized to two years. Drawn up to be generally academic and not vocational, graduates may proceed to the second year of a local bachelor's degree, that has also been the target of most students. But the sad truth is, less than one third of them could carry on to finish a bachelor's degree.

With employers attaching little demand for associate degrees, the value becomes disputable - if not a waste of time and money. The program has already outlived its original intent, and it will be quite a challenge for Yeung if the upcoming review is meant to hammer the final nail in the coffin of associate degrees.

Although the program has been ineffective, provision of the courses became an increasingly important income source for the operators, including universities that are under constant pressure to find alternative revenue streams.

To some extent, associate degree provision is at present more a business venture than an educational scheme.

As Yeung proceeds with his review, will he collide with vested interests - since many organizers have already established themselves over the years, and hired numerous staff?

While it is foreseeable that demand for associate degree studies will drop as more young people opt for self- financed bachelor's degree courses due to the new subsidies, it remains to be seen whether the sub-degree scheme will eventually fade into history.

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