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Does society recognise associate degrees?
Reporters: Yannie Mak & Matthew Leung

Every year starting in late March, Hong Kong’s secondary schools become battlefields for tens of thousands of anxious students taking their A-level Examination. This year, they are joined by students taking the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination. This means there will be more than 110,000 students sitting their school-leaving exams this spring.

Many of them will hope to gain the grades needed to secure entrance to a University Grants Council (UGC) funded undergraduate programme. But only around 15,700 will make it due to the limited number of places. Most students are bound to consider alternative paths if they wish to pursue their studies.

The associate degree was introduced by the government in 2000 to boost the number of students in tertiary education. Various institutions providing associate degree programmes have since positioned themselves as stepping-stones to entering degree courses and over the years, their programmes have attracted a fair number of students.
According to the Information Portal for Accredited Post-secondary Programmes (iPass), the number of enrollments to full-time associate degree programmes reached 27,500 in academic year 2010-11, seven times the number in 2000.

Yet the qualification seems to get a bad rap from society at large. With a certain amount of stigma attached to it and uncertainties about future prospects, deciding whether studying for an associate degree is a justified or risky move depends on individual expectations.

Kong Ka-sin, a first-year associate degree student in psychology at the College of International Education, chose the associate degree path as she thought it would give her a better chance of getting onto degree programmes than a vocational school would.

However, she thought twice before making the decision. “I held a negative view towards associate degrees when I was in Form Five,” says Kong. “Is it really corresponding to degree programmes? Is it really recognised [by employers]?”
She now realises the courses have helped her discover where her interests lie and encouraged her to strive for better career prospects. Kong believes this knowledge benefits students whether they eventually continue their studies in university or join the workplace.

After seeing the possibilities of further study from the experience of her seniors, Kong now feels more comfortable about her choice.

What concerns her now is how much her tuition costs. According to the Education Bureau (EDB), more than half of the local self-financed institutions providing associate degree programmes plan to raise their tuition in the coming academic year by five to 10 per cent on average.

Shirley Heung Shuk-yi, a second-year associate degree student in health studies at the Hong Kong Community College pays around $50,000 a year in tuition fees. She is unhappy about what she gets in return. Heung complains that most of the time a dozen students have to share one life-sized anatomical mannequin for practicals.

Heung attributes this phenomenon to a sharp increase in student intake. Heung says there were fewer than 100 students in her programme the year before she was admitted, but that number has now more than tripled.

According to figures from the EDB, only six per cent of the 30,000 students enrolled in associate degree programmes in 2011-12 will be able to further their studies on UGC-funded degree programmes. The rest may have to consider self-funded degree programmes offered by local universities, which charge $20,000 to $40,000 more per year than the UGC-funded degree programmes.

Rocky Tam Lok-kei, a second-year student in associate of social science programme at the Community College of City University, explains that graduates from self-funded degree programmes are usually welcomed by employers as they tend to have more practical knowledge and their courses are designed with industry needs in mind.

This makes self-funded programmes a good option for those who do not get onto UGC-funded degree programmes. But just as some doors open up for associate degree graduates, others close.

The City University of Hong Kong recently announced it would slash admissions for self-funded degree programmes from 652 this year to 90 in 2014-15. The university says the move is to ensure quality teaching. But Tam, who is a representative of The Group in Concern of the Cutting of Self Financing Top-up Degree Programmes of the City University, accuses the university of neglecting associate degree students’ expectations.

This development may just be the latest twist in the fluctuating fortunes of the associate degree in Hong Kong. Its reception has been mixed in the 12 years since it was introduced.