Ho Lok Sang says with more establishments offering degree courses at the expense of vocational training, the coming decline in student numbers may kill off private tertiary institutions unable to vie with government-funded ones
The rapid expansion in Hong Kong of degree placements by self-financing institutions and self-financing arms of subsidised institutions has led to notable “achievements”, according to the government. One document says: “There are now about 150 and 300 self-financing post-secondary programmes at undergraduate level and sub-degree level … vis-à-vis around 40 and 230 such programmes respectively in 2005-06”.
But there is an excessive orientation towards academic degrees and inadequate attention placed on vocational development. Even the Vocational Training Council (VTC) is increasing its emphasis on degree programmes.
A healthy tertiary education sector should offer diversity, innovative pedagogy, plus strong links to industry and other sectors of society. The council is a massive organisation, and by offering degree programmes, it threatens the existence of courses run by private institutions without government funding.
If diversity is to prevail, we need a policy to ensure a level playing field. VTC-run degree programmes enjoy an unfair advantage, and government-funded institutions enjoy an unfair advantage due to branding and far superior infrastructure like libraries and IT facilities. If they run certain programmes, it would make sense to focus on niche areas that don’t overlap with those run by private institutions. If they run similar programmes, there should be quotas.
The winner-takes-all problem will become more acute in the next few years, as the number of secondary education graduates dwindles, leaving too few candidates to sustain all the current suppliers.
One may say: why not let competition eliminate those that cannot compete? This is based on the assumptions that the competition is fair and having far fewer players is desirable. Both are misplaced.
Both the VTC and University Grants Committee-funded universities are government funded to perform designated functions, but have ventured into areas beyond their original missions and enjoy significant advantages. The competition for survival could eliminate worthy players offering unique programmes. They could fail not because their programmes are not good enough, but because of the psychology to opt for stronger market players.
Even if eliminating some players is necessary, without a policy mitigating the winner-takes-all tendency, there will be too few players. We would lose the diversity driving innovation and offering students more choice in terms of programme design, pedagogy, location of classes, institutional culture and connectivity.
Ho Lok Sang is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education