SCMP Friday, June 1, 2001

Worthy graduates

Traditionally, Chinese aspire to receive as much formal education as possible. With the expansion of higher education in recent years, more and more young people no longer consider passing O-levels as the end of their schooling. Rather, most strive to attempt A-levels, with a view to enrolling in university and getting a degree.
Only if they fail to enrol in degree programmes will they reluctantly accept places on associate degree courses that lead to the award of higher or professional diplomas. Even then, many diploma holders will try to upgrade their qualifications to degrees.
Thus, a problem with the Government's plan to expand associate degree programmes is that many of these graduates may still want to get "full" degrees. They may also demand a system similar to that of community college graduates in the United States who are typically then allowed to take only two years instead of four to get a university degree.
Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun was mindful of the needs when she said degree programmes might have to be increased.
That is not to say the Government is wrong to expand associate degree programmes now. There is no point increasing the number of degree courses when many university students have difficulties coping with their studies and many employers complain the graduates are not good enough.
But it needs to be realised that associate degrees are not yet widely recognised as final qualifications. For that to change, the Government would need to take the lead in extending recognition of associate degrees as entry qualifications for more posts in the civil service.
The Government is inviting local and overseas bodies to start associate degree programmes in the SAR. It also plans to provide loans to students who want to pursue such courses overseas.
Whether students take the local or foreign route, the critical issue is quality. There are many institutes prepared to confer degrees providing a student pays the fees, regardless of the quality of the work.
Rigorous quality assessment of educational awards, both local and foreign, is therefore essential. It would be a shame if Hong Kong continued to produce, or accept, more graduates who are unworthy of their qualifications.