Fung Wai-wah, president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, says that because of rushed implementation, the associate degree faced four major problems in the early days.
First, a lack of resources from the government meant quality was varied across courses and institutions. Second, corresponding paths for further studies were not well planned. Third, there were no financial subsidies for teaching facilities, which led to expensive tuition fees. Fourth, the government’s failure to take the lead in recognising the qualification made job-seeking challenging.
Fung says that because the programmes were not government funded, there was also a lack of regulation on quality and standards. Institutes that manage to enroll a large and stable number of students may make huge profits without having to invest much of it on students, while other institutes struggle financially. Fung describes this as an unhealthy phenomenon.
Some of the problems are improving. For instance, the path for further studies has been widened thanks to an increase in the number of UGC-funded degree programmes especially for associate degree graduates. “But we are not satisfied yet as the ratio is still low,” Fung says.
Even if the number of such degree places were further increased, a large proportion of associate degree graduates would still have to enter the workforce rather than pursue further study.
In 2008, the Qualifications Framework system, a seven-level hierarchy, was introduced by the government. Associate degree lies in the fourth level together with higher diploma, in between diploma and bachelor degree.
But compared with the higher diploma, which has been around for half a century, the associate degree is not as well recognised by the government. There are 300 to 400 government positions which are open to graduates from higher diploma programmes, but fewer than 100 for associate degree graduates, according to Fung Wai-wah.
“We advocate the government to take the first step to increase the number of recognised positions, so as to give confidence to other employers [towards associate degree graduates],” says Fung, who also questions why the government refuses to disclose exactly how many associate degree graduates it hires every year.
Today, there are over 20 self-financed institutions providing associate degree programmes. Even students themselves do not know them all, so it is unsurprising that employers may be uncertain about the programmes.
However, Paul Arkwright, publisher and editor-in-chief of HR Magazine, says employers are not that concerned about the type of degree a job-seeker has. Candidates do not get hired just because of an associate degree or a bachelor degree.
“In the work place, it has changed a lot. It has a lot less emphasis on the academic,” says Arkwright. “Practical working experience would be their [employers] number one concern.”
From his contact with human resources hiring managers, Arkwright says he knows most fresh graduates, including bachelor degree holders, are criticised for not having working experience.
Therefore, he suggests that associate degree students should at least fight for some working experience, even if it is unpaid. “There’s no excuse for getting no working experience,” Arkwright adds.
A businesswoman, who participated in a business forum organised by HR Magazine, says she recently accepted an application from an associate degree graduate because of his good English. She was less concerned about what type of qualification he had. She adds that with the increasing number of bachelor degree holders, all degree holders are worried about getting a job.
It appears that the associate degree does not offer a sure path to further studies or great career prospects. But that does not mean it serves no purpose at all.
In the eyes of Professor Chung Yue-ping, from the Department of Educational Administration and Policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, providing more education opportunities is beneficial to society overall.
Chung describes pursuing more knowledge as an investment. Choosing to continue studying after graduation from secondary school instead of working could mean losing a few years of money-earning opportunities yet, “it is about enrichment of knowledge and enhancement of abilities, which are useful for a person throughout his life.”
Chung suggests associate degrees could be improved if the government allocates more resources, including money and land. He says the quality could be improved too by ensuring a satisfactory level of teaching staff qualifications and course content.
In recent years, some have expressed concern over what they call the “overflow” of sub-degrees. They argue that the increased number of students in higher education dilutes quality and standards.
But Chung regards “overflow” as the indiscriminate distribution of qualifications by institutions rather than an increase in the number of students.
As long as the quality of associate degree programmes is ensured, providing more higher education opportunities is the “foundation of a society’s civilisation,” says Chung. “It [education] is an investment in yourself, an enrichment of knowledge, an increase of ability, which benefits your entire life.”