Hong Kong should devote more financial resources to applied degrees
Author: Renee Ho, Researcher of Our Hong Kong Foundation
Savannah College of Art and Design (Hong Kong) issued a statement last Friday (13th), announcing that it is closing its Hong Kong campus this summer and leaving the city. The news sparked public concerns about the sustainability self-financing institutions in Hong Kong.
Following Hong Kong’s education reform in 2000, the participation rate of higher education continued to rise, and self-financing institutions played a major role in this development. Today, there are two types of sub-degree programmes in Hong Kong: associate degrees and higher diplomas. The introduction of associate degrees created more options for secondary school graduates, but there is still uncertainty around their recognition and their progression to university degrees. This gave rise to serious concerns for those choosing to do an associate degree.
Before the 2000 education reform, sub-degree programmes in Hong Kong were limited to higher diplomas. The government then introduced associate degrees, aiming to boost the participation rate of tertiary education to 60% by 2010. Although both are Level 4 in the Hong Kong Qualifications Framework (QF), their course content can be very different. The former has a traditional focus on academic and general knowledge, while the latter is more vocational and practical. Around 30% of secondary school graduates enrol on sub-degree programmes each year.
In the past 20 years, the demand for sub-degree education has continued to grow. Correspondingly, sub-degree places have increased from fewer than 10,000 in 2000 to nearly 35,000 today, two thirds of which are offered by self-financing Institutions. The 60% of higher education participation rate target set for the education reform was quickly exceeded. Although associate degrees were intended to be a standalone degree in the reform, equipping graduates with the requisite knowledge and skills, they are not as recognised by society in their own right, compared to higher diploma, which is more vocational.
However, according to data published by the government, almost 90% of these graduates choose further education, and half of them would apply to universities funded by University Grants Committee (UGC). This clearly shows that for students, associate degrees merely serve as stepping stones to an undergraduate programme and lack credibility in the job market. They are not seen as standalone and valuable qualifications. Moreover, the number of subsidised associate degrees has fallen sharply over the years, and of over 8,000 graduates annually, only 300 are government-funded. Faced with prohibitively high tuition fees, students risk accumulating debts without the promise of a worthwhile academic qualification.
To solve the problems of the sub-degree system, associate degrees and higher diplomas need distinct identities and roles, as pathways leading to traditional academic or applied degrees. This will not only expand the options for higher diploma graduates wanting to pursue further education, but also maintain a distinction between associate degrees and higher diplomas. In addition, if higher diploma has a progression route of its own, it will attract more students, thereby correcting the imbalance between the supply of associate degree graduates and the demand for senior year places of undergraduate programmes (because the number of associate degree graduates is higher than the number of senior year places available from undergraduate programmes).
In this year’s Budget, the Hong Kong government has launched an ‘Enhancement and Start-up Grant Scheme’ to benefit self-financing institutions ‘offering designated sub-degree or undergraduate programmes that meet market needs but require high start-up costs’. It has allocated a total of HK$1.26 billion to the cause. Our Hong Kong Foundation expects the scheme to support self-financing institutions in their provision of sub-degree programmes that meet identified human resources needs and to offer financial assistance to students enrolling on these courses, clarifying the position of associate degrees and higher diplomas.