Sustainability of Massification in East Asian Higher Education: Community Colleges in Hong Kong in Retrospect and Prospects
While higher education can serve the instrumental role in global knowledge-based economy with financial risks, the case of Hong Kong reflects that global discourse is potent in regard to generating government rhetoric of lifelong learning for “enterprising” oneself for the knowledge-based twenty-first century. This chapter presents the empirical data to illustrate how educated youths respond to the global discourse and government rhetoric of lifelong learning, namely, by continuing their study with community colleges in Hong Kong. It will discuss the conceptual framework for understanding the scenarios for sustainability in Asian higher education. Yet in critical perspectives, this chapter will analyze the way in which the Hong Kong’s community colleges are governed and the imperative of family social class in making sense of the study pathways through community college. The notion of “knowledge economy” will be put into critical examination, and we will consider the alignment problems between employment market and higher education massification in Hong Kong as a postindustrial Asian city. This chapter finds that the sustainability of Hong Kong higher education massification is not the core issue facing the higher education sector itself. Without a proactive direction and sense of progress, the sector tends to maintain its massified segment intact without making significant changes in inputs and costs. While it is responsive to the public consciousness and demands for accountability, the massified sector, as second tier of the system, continues to make forward “progress” but without a clear vision and strategies for significant improvement, fit for purpose, or pursuit of enhanced educational equality. The Hong Kong higher education sector, alongside the public consciousness, shares the consensual value that the way in which its mass higher education segment will be sustained should be left to the market forces to determine. What always matters most is the figure of student enrollment as it determines whether the colleges can sustain themselves in the competitive education market through a viable financial model. Economic climate, ability to respond to employment market and global economy challenges, technology, level of political and social stability, and more importantly demography are the determinants of the progress which the massified segment of Hong Kong higher education can make in the decades to come.
KeywordsHigher education massification Sustainibilty of massification East asian higher education Community colleges Graduate employment Social class
Massification of higher education has been an indicator of socioeconomic development of the contemporary world. It was suggested by Trow (1973, 2007) that the admission rate within the range of 15% to 50% is viewed as mass higher education. According to Gibbons (1998), the motives for massification of higher education are multifaceted. Under the context of democratization of politics and society, the public policy sector is expanding, whereas the development of industrial and post-industrial economies is propelled by the supply of more high-skilled labors. Education itself is attractive as a major element of modern economies and new welfare states. Hong Kong, a former British colony in East Asia, underwent a substantial industrialization in late post-World War II era. Elitism had dominated the ideology of higher education sector in most periods in British colonial rule of Hong Kong (Lo and Tang 2016; Tang 2015a). Tang (2015a) historicizes the development of Hong Kong mass higher education as two waves of massification. The first wave of massification took place against the backdrop of decolonization from 1984 to 1997; the admission rate of higher education rose from 2% to 18% in the public higher education institutions with self-accredited status (UGC 1996). Before massification, Hong Kong students who failed to be admitted to a Hong Kong university could consider studying abroad or enrolling with the Open University of Hong Kong as alternatives of access to higher learning. Although the Open University of Hong Kong was founded by the Hong Kong Government, it was required to operate on a self-funding basis, not unrelated to the elitist ethos in Hong Kong education sector.
When Hong Kong returned to China as a Special Administrative Region in 1997, the year marked the beginning of the second wave of higher education massification. The second wave, emerged in postcolonial circumstances, was the result of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s (HKSAR) policy response to the globalization of knowledge economies. Also, the emerging democratic demand for Hong Kong civic life and its discourse of social equity (e.g., Tang 2015b) were juxtaposed with the democratizing initiatives of higher education through liberating the access to post-secondary institutions. The beginning of 1990s saw the policy agenda for pervasive transformation of Hong Kong economy into a knowledge-based one. The discourse of higher education policy has been fundamentally influenced by the linkage between the expansion of post-secondary education and enhancement of economic competitiveness . Tung Chee-hwa, the first HKSAR Chief Executive, discoursed in his policies the correlation between competitiveness of Hong Kong and manpower quality and, on that basis, considered the imperative role of education in producing better human resources so as to foster economic development (Tung 1997, para 79).
As the former higher education system did not sufficiently fuel the workforce for the emerging knowledge economy transited from a manufacturing one, the Hong Kong Education Commission (1999) advocated in its consultative document Learning for Life that Hong Kong citizens should be educated as lifelong learners under the education and economic systems. The HKSAR government was prompted to increase the access to higher education with a view to enhancing Hong Kong economic competitiveness and upgrading the quality of its workforce (Kennedy 2004). The Chief Executive expressed that the government should achieve the aim of 60% participation rate of the tertiary education by 2010 (Legislative Council 2006; Tung 2000).
Neoliberal policies and practices materialized the massification direction of Hong Kong higher education (Lo and Tang 2016; Tang 2015a). One justification for massifying Hong Kong higher education through private means is the economic context of post-1998 Asian financial crisis, which made the financial budget for higher education continuously decreased. The fiscal circumstances limited the policy options of Asian governments for expanding their higher education section (Postiglione 2005; cited by Lo and Tang 2016). Within the higher education private market created by the governments, the private institutions found their ways to recruit students by marketable programs and viable financial models. This way the governments only needed to make minimal fiscal commitment in the policies. In fact, around 1% of the Hong Kong gross domestic export was spent on higher education funding in the 2000s, generally lower than the international average. If the newly massified tier of Hong Kong higher education was operated as a public provision, the government would need to cover a recurrent expenditure of nearly US$440 million every year (Legislative Council 2008, 3). In operation level, self-financed programs were offered in the fields where the public higher education institutions had not faced problems of financial severity (Wan 2011). A list of supportive measures such as a start-up loan scheme and grant scheme was approved by the Financial Committee of the Legislative Council in 2001 to support less economically privileged students to study with the programs in the self-financing sector, which demands a relatively higher tuition fee than its public counterparts. A former education minister, Arthur Li (2005), stated that “the government pledged to ensure that no one would be deprived of further education opportunities because of the lack of means.” Different means of financial assistance such as means-tested grant, low-interest/non-means-tested loans, and travel subsidies have been offered to eligible students (Legislative Council 2006).
The self-financing sector has shown enthusiasm in response to the policy objective, providing an enabling environment for the second wave of higher education massification in Hong Kong. According to Information Portal for Accredited Post-secondary Programmes (IPASS) , the 2-year associate degrees from the community colleges, mirroring the American 2-year community college model to a certain extent, have been the major outcome of the higher education expansion with an exponential increase of tertiary education places (IPASS 2016). The higher diploma programs, which inherited from and modeled after the British further education system, are incorporated into the Hong Kong’s community college model. The same institution, i.e., the community college, usually offers both the associate degree and higher diploma programs as study options for potential applicants. Compared with associate degree programs, higher diploma programs offer majors which tend to more cater for training of technical knowledge and job preparedness of the students. The community colleges, as sub-university institutions, in Hong Kong do not own the academic authority to confer degree at bachelor level or above but up to associate degree or higher diploma levels (which are collectively known as “sub-degree” in the Hong Kong educational context). As a result, the Hong Kong’s community colleges are operated either in the form of (1) extension of the public degree-awarding universities (e.g., department/school of adult and continuing education), (2) collaboration between public universities and charitable organizations, or (3) independent post-secondary colleges.
Given the “educational desire” in Hong Kong as a Confucian society (Lee 1996; Kipnis 2011; Tang 2015a), the total supply of self-financed sub-degree places has increased by ninefold during the period from the 2000–01 to 2005–06 (Legislative Council 2008, 16–17). The education opportunities for the 17–20 age cohort have doubled in 5 years from 33% to 66% (Legislative Council 2006; Legislative Council 2008). According to IPASS (2016), in the academic year 2001–02, 38 accredited self-financed sub-degree programs with 8,895 students were provided by around 11 institutions. In the academic year 2012–13, 315 accredited self-financed sub-degree programs with 58,694 students were provided by around 24 institutions. The phenomenal expansion of the sub-degree sector demonstrates the demand of Hong Kong students/parents for higher learning, as well as the community’s readiness and capacity of the Hong Kong in investment into the sector (Legislative Council 2006, 5–6). The expansion is understood as a “spectacular” one because the transition from elite to mass higher education was taken place in a compressed time span and at minimal economic cost to the government (Kember 2010, 167). It was claimed that the expansion of Hong Kong higher education has been more intensive than other East Asian countries (Hayhoe 1995) and China (Mok 2003). As abovementioned, mainly the expansion was realized by the introduction of the 2-year associate degree programs. Quite a variety of subjects – particularly liberal arts subjects – are offered to the associate degree students who distinguish their study pathway from secondary school and other sub-degree programs, especially higher diploma programs which are more vocation oriented.
While higher education can serve the instrumental role in global knowledge-based economy with financial risks, the case of Hong Kong reflects that global discourse is potent in regard to generating government rhetoric of lifelong learning (Tang 2015a; Lo and Tang 2016) for “enterprising” oneself for the knowledge-based twenty-first century. The next sections present the empirical data to illustrate how secondary school leavers respond to the global discourse and government rhetoric of lifelong learning, namely, by continuing their study with community colleges in Hong Kong. Then we will discuss the conceptual framework for understanding the scenarios for sustainability in Asian higher education, regarding the case of Hong Kong’s community colleges which continues making forward progress for its higher education massification. Yet in critical perspectives, our discussions will move on to analyze the way in which the Hong Kong’s community colleges are governed and highlight the possibility of market failure as well as the imperative of family social class in making sense of the study pathways through community college. Lastly, the notion of “knowledge economy” will be put into critical examination, and we will consider the alignment problems between employment market and higher education massification in Hong Kong as a postindustrial Asian city.
Spectacular Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education in Hong Kong through the Model of Community Colleges
In terms of program development, the growth of both self-financed associate degree and higher diploma programs from the year 2006–07 to 2014–15 is considered mild, though fluctuating, whereas the provision ranges from 140 to 169 and 113 to 198, respectively. The number of top-up degree programs available has been growing substantially from 55 in 2008–09 to 175 in 2014–15 with an average growth rate of 9% per annum.
As illustrated above, the student enrollment and study programs in Hong Kong’s community colleges underwent a specular expansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But is this Hong Kong college model sustainable? We will discuss the sustainability issues of Hong Kong higher education massification in the next section.
Scenarios for Sustainability in Asian Higher Education: The Case of Hong Kong’s Community Colleges
While massification is a key phenomenon in higher education systems worldwide, sustainability of mass higher education has become a timely and significant issue, especially in societies with lowering/unstable birth rate, overtly academic capitalism, and precarious education finance. Neubauer (2016) conceptualizes and delineates some varied scenarios for sustainability in Asian higher education. This section borrows liberally the ideas and thematic discussions from the conceptual model to inform the review of Hong Kong’s community colleges in retrospect and prospects. This conceptual section will introduce the differing notions of “sustainability” and challenges for sustainability in Asian higher education. Namely, the differing scenarios and notions are the following four types:
Keep the system intact. One scenario is keeping the system intact without making significant changes in inputs, outputs, or the costs of processes. The conditions which enable a mass higher education sustainable depend on the larger context of demographic change, economic change, technological change, level of political and social stability, and ability of the mass higher education to respond to globalization challenges.
Don’t fall backward. This scenario refers to a mass higher education in a state that no forward progress and improvement are proactively sought but can maintain the current performance indicator, for example, stable student enrollments. This can be a condition that, for example, the current system has significant inequalities, but it does not fall backward even without improvement on those inequalities. Sometimes the mass higher education system somehow goes “forward” in certain ways.
Continue making forward progress and continuous improvement. This is a scenario featured by proactive changes underpinning a sense of progress and direction, which are usually driven by the concern for accountability to the stakeholders outside higher education sector. More significantly, progress and direction in that sense should be measurable and can be examined empirically. Assuming the higher education sector is part of the change processes in the larger global and socioeconomic development, the device of strategic planning should be responsive, relevant, effective, and flexible to contend with institutional and systemic changes attributable to the exogenous variables. “Making continuous quality improvement” has then become the conventional buzz word in quality assurance and accreditation of most mass higher education systems.
Continue “fit for purpose.” Neubauer (2016) argues that one distinctive characteristic of massification in East Asia’s higher education is the reorientation of their education institutions’ purpose and capacity in alignment with the demands and concerns of the economic system and societal needs. New visions and missions are emerging as the higher education sector strives to align their capacity with the newfangled goals of the knowledge economy and precarious global environments with a view to ensuring fit for purpose. An alignment between institutional capacity and purpose is also essential for the “fit.” Examples are the conversion of China’s universities from technical institutions, the quest for world-class university status through Brain Korea 21 (1999–2012) and Brain Korea 21 Plus (2013–19) projects in South Korea, as well as the twenty-first Century Center of Excellence (COE) Program (2003–07) and the Global COE Program (2008–12) in Japan.
As a result, what is imperative to the notion of sustainability are the extent to which a higher education system or individual institutions commit to make their mass higher education sustainable and how (best) the sustainability endeavors are conceptualized, operationalized, and measured. Sustainability is not merely a rhetorical commitment. When the notion is being operationalized and measured, what are the outputs that maximize the impact in terms of social and economic values? What is the system (or a new segment of it) designed to produce? What is the point of reference, or to what is a mass higher education system being compared? Clarity of purpose, alignment of strategic plans/goals with institutional capabilities, and systematical identified levels of support are all conducive to effective sustainability of mass higher education. Moreover, systematic and holistic assessment of the future changing socioeconomic and political environments can always inform the input of changes necessary to a sustainable mass higher education (Neubauer 2016).
Continue Making Forward Progress for the Hong Kong Higher Education Massification
Since the 2000–01 academic year, it is observed that the actual enrollment in Hong Kong’s community colleges against the policy plans is generally satisfactory, “indicating a genuine and robust demand for post-secondary education which is met by a market-responsive self-financing sector in a timely manner” (Legislative Council 2006, 5). The spectacular quantitative expansion of the associate degree sector reflects the forceful drive by the ample market demand (Legislative Council 2008). It is also stated that “not only has post-secondary education offered a more comprehensive and diversified learning environment, it has also supplemented the conventional articulation pathway by opening up alternative routes for further studies and better employment prospects at the junior professional or managerial levels” (Legislative Council 2006, 6). With the 60% policy objective having been met, some have suggested that instead of further expansion, the remaining resources under the various government support measures should be redeployed to other areas, for example, internationalizing the student intake which can diversify the student body, lead to the healthy development of the sector, and establish Hong Kong as an “education hub” in Asia Pacific (Legislative Council 2006).
The phenomenal expansion of the sub-degree (associate degree and higher diploma) sector in a very short time span has stirred concerns about quality. Oversupply of post-secondary places, leading to unhealthy competition, may also result in deterioration in education and program quality. In fact, community colleges, in particular their associate degree programs, have been recurrently reported as newspaper headline stories in a critical and negative way. There were cases among the associate degrees in vocational tracks that were refused accreditation by professional bodies in Hong Kong. Either the degree can be accepted as a qualification leading to a decent employment or articulation to full bachelor degrees, the policy of associate degree will otherwise be perceived as a costly route to nowhere (Kember 2010). It is still fuzzy in the Hong Kong public perception that in what ways associate degree deserves to be categorized as higher education or higher education of an inferior version in the “second tier” (Tang 2015a). Notwithstanding massive numbers of students enrolled in them, the deeply rooted meritocracy of the Hong Kong public culture accounts for the general view that these degrees are seen as “less than,” because higher achievers in the university entrance examination, following the social norms, usually prefer studying with a well-established public university.
Therefore, a steering committee was formed by the HKSAR Legislative Council to review and assess the development of Hong Kong post-secondary education. The steering committee comprises members from institutions/service providers for post-secondary education, quality assurance agencies, and the general public (Legislative Council 2006). Phase 1 of the review primarily assessed the development of the higher education massification since the policy objective announced in year 2000. Four aspects, namely, recognition, quality control, finance, and facility support, were examined and recommendations were made. Phase 2 of the review focused on the implementation of the phase 1 recommendations and other policy issues which require detailed analysis and deliberation. In response to the concerns about quality, two quality assurance mechanisms were set up. While the programs offered by non-self-accrediting providers are to be accredited by the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), the programs by self-accrediting providers, albeit self-financed, are subject to the same quality assurance process as the publicly funded degree programs (Legislative Council 2006). The steering committee noted that most institutions were able to provide sound financial plans for application for a start-up loan scheme and to maintain the operation in a financially viable and healthy manner. The review also acknowledged the government’s vigilance in approving land grants and the use of public expenditures and resources in a prudent manner, complying with the principle of cost efficiency conservatively. Aligning with the principle of “multiple entry and exit points” which promotes sub-degree as exit qualifications, more than 20 professional bodies from different sectors recognized the AD qualifications and granted partial exemptions from their professional examinations (Legislative Council 2006, 11). The steering committee of the review panel also recommended conducting graduate tracking surveys to assess the professional comments of employers on the job performance of self-financed sub-degree graduates. In a meeting at the Executive Council in the spring of 2008, the HKSAR Chief Executive, upon the advice of the Legislative Council, announced the order that the mechanisms of quality assurance for the Hong Kong post-secondary self-financing education sector should be enhanced and the recognition to associate degree graduates should be improved, with the lead by the government in its recruitment in civil service appointment.
To promote sharing of good practices of administration, teaching, and learning in the sub-degree sector, an expert group was set up to research and publish good practices for the sub-degree sector.” For providing references by institutions and quality assurance agencies in the sub-degree sector, the expert group sets out general principles and good practices of effective quality assurance. Moreover, the Quality Enhancement Grant Scheme (QEGS) amounting to US$13 million was launched in 2008–09 covering a period of three academic years to fund worthwhile nonrecurrent nonwork projects which aim at improving the teaching and learning of sub-degree programs and upgrading the overall standards of the self-financing sector. Teaching and learning projects which enhance the effectiveness of language proficiency, effective pedagogies, quality assurance, and career guidance services or student support in general are eligible for application. Meanwhile, a Tripartite Liaison Committee comprising the Education Bureau (EDB), the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), and the Joint Quality Review Committee (JQRC) were set up to administer the quality assurance of Hong Kong’s community colleges (Legislative Council 2008).
Having said that, other than program quality, opportunities for articulation and educated unemployment are the key issues to be critically addressed after satisfactory student enrollment (Wan 2011). Unlike their international counterparts, Hong Kong’s community colleges do not have the authority to confer bachelor degrees; graduates of sub-degree need to look for top-up degree programs offered by degree-awarding institutions if they want to continue their studies. Although the government committed to adding 1,680 publicly funded senior-year places/top-up degree programs for transfer students since 2005–06 by phases (Legislative Council 2006, 10) and there was a tremendous increase in transfer rate from 3% to about 33% (Mingpao 27 March 2012, cited by Wong 2016), the demand for further studies of Hong Kong students could not yet be answered satisfactorily. It is because completing a “full” undergraduate degree, as a terminal award, has been viewed as the necessary next stage of personal development by many associate degree graduates. This is the attributable to the traditional respect for education and “educational desire” in Confucian societies. Studying hard and aspiring for attaining an educational qualification higher than their parents are both the motivation and obligation for young people in Confucian families (Kember 2010). The educational desire leads to the demand for self-financed top-up undergraduate programs . To address the needs of more associate graduates to study undergraduate programs, a significant number of self-financed top-up degree programs have been launched. Therefore, Hong Kong higher education system saw an emergence and significant growth for self-financed top-up programs from the mid-2000s to the late 2000s (see Fig. 2). As abovementioned, Hong Kong’s community colleges do not have the academic authority to grant bachelor degrees; the top-up degree programs for transfer students are mainly conducted in collaboration with overseas universities including Australian and British universities.
However, in local sense, top-up degrees for transfer students from community colleges are perceived as inferior to the full bachelor degrees offered by the Hong Kong public universities. Such local sense was formed according to the streaming function of education against the backdrop of the academic pyramid. Majority of students would prefer direct entry into a public university, but only a minority of them are successful. The reality caused students’ disappointment and, more problematically, a sense of inferiority. Regarding the academic staff at community colleges, they are employed mainly for teaching without expectations of research commitment. They enjoy less opportunities for research funding and research facilities. Meanwhile, their contact hours for teaching and student-teacher ratio are higher than their counterparts, especially academics of professorial rank, in public universities in Hong Kong. It is still fuzzy in the Hong Kong public perception in what ways associate degree deserves to be categorized as higher education or higher education of an inferior version in the “second tier”.
Entering into in the mid-2010s, under-enrollment is common among the majority of self-financing higher education institutions. Oversupply of the education programs has been worsened by the declining birth rate of the corresponding youth cohort. Several academic programs without successful operational/financial performance in the sector have been closed while the concerned academic staff will be laid off. Making the continuous development of Hong Kong higher education more uncertain and complex, the neoliberalized trend in Hong Kong higher education policies tended to be recalibrated when a HKSAR Chief Executive was appointed in 2012, specifically to better align Hong Kong sociopolitical development with the mainland China’s political agenda (Lo 2017).
In 2015, a research report was released by the HKSAR Legislative Council to review the results of the new industries promotion. It revealed that job creation and GDP contribution from education services and other new industries, except creative and cultural industries, do not bring much contribution in diversifying the economic structure of Hong Kong (Legislative Council Secretariat 2015). The HKSAR Chief Executive expressed in the 2013 Policy Address that the public was having a debate about whether an “industry” is a more proper term for education. Another debate is that contradictions arise concerning whether education should be promoted as an industry in service of a regional hub or should cater to for the local needs. How Hong Kong’s community colleges are to be governed remains a key question in the massified Hong Kong higher education sector.
Governing the Hong Kong’s Community Colleges: Possibility of Market Failure and Limitations of the “Invisible Hands”
The governance of Hong Kong higher education massification has predominantly been driven, operationalized, and maintained by the market ideology. Within the market ideology, it allows winners take all, but the situations will become especially problematic regardless of market functions or fails. When the education market functions, market share is concentrated in the hands of a few big players (Legislative Council 2006, 3). Among the key players, it was empirically found that “articulation,” “career service,” “financial aid,” and “program design” are the areas the institutions can work with to increase their competitiveness and maximize the market share (Wong et al. 2016). When the market fails, the resources invested in the institutions and the sector will be wasted, and the prospects of the students and teaching staff concerned will be affected. According to Educational Bureau (2008), there has been request to the government to take a more significant role in controlling the quality of sub-degree programs, instead of letting the sector develop on its own according to market forces. The government should step in when there are market inefficiencies or failures (Legislative Council 2008, 16–17). Positive discrimination measures can be set up in favor of new and smaller players with a view to diversifying students’ choices and contributing to the long-term development of the sector. Instead of promoting direct competitions, the government should encourage role differentiation and collaborative efforts among institutions so that the institutions can put in collectively their resources and share them alongside their expertise in institutional governance, pedagogy and curriculum development, as well as teaching materials (Legislative Council 2006, 8–9). After all, the government should be prepared to increase the provision of publicly funded sub-degree courses (Legislative Council 2006).
In Legislative Council Brief Phase 2 Review of the Post-secondary Education Sector, it claims on the ground of social equity that “as students facing financial difficulties are provided opportunities to acquire further education and professional training, their earning capability will be lifted. This has positive effect on social mobility and is conducive to social harmony” (Legislative Council 2008, 31). However, sub-degree graduates have an apparently lower level of earnings compared to the graduates from publicly funded institutions (Chan 2012). Unlike their publicly funded counterparts, students of self-financed programs are not eligible for means-tested loans to cover their living expenses. This may pose a heavy repayment burden on students of self-financed sub-degree programs, especially those from less well-off families and earn less after graduation as compared to university graduates. Family social class may determine a different reality the students face amidst their educational failure and subsequent study pathway for further education.
Small World, Different Worlds: Family Social Class and Study Pathways through Community College
Arguments in this section are mainly based on Wong (2016) whose research findings are derived from a qualitative study of 85 students from a self-selected community college as a small convenience sample. From 2006 to 2009, 85 respondents joined the first interview, whereas 64 of them joined the follow-up interviews in 2010. The respondents expressed how they perceived and received the study pathway through community college as a second chance for university admission. The gender distribution of the respondents is 32 males and 53 females. Middle class occupies 30 respondents and working class occupies 55 respondents.
The two major problems community college students face are high tuition fees and low level of financial assistance than the university students (Wong 2016, 10). On the one hand, the community colleges provide other educational options for students who fail to enter public university directly. But on the other hand, students and parents from different social classes do not share a similar level of capacity of taking advantage of it, when the educational option is contextualized owing to one’s social class background (Wong 2016, 14). As the educational options are very new, pricey, and hence dicey, guidance and advice from well-informed and resourceful parents are important to take advantage of the second chances for university admission available in the market. Since their educated parents could provide more relevantly informed academic advice and adequate financial support, middle-class community college students can take a better advantage of their sub-degree program to rectify their previous failure in public examination and subsequently get university admission out of the second chance. While middle class parents have a better knowledge of community colleges than the working-class parents, working-class students have to explain to and persuade their parents that the option of community college is a worthy option by explaining to them the costs and opportunities offered by the option.
Wong (2016) argues that due to possession of cultural capital, parents from middle-class background are better informed of how the education system is operated and can therefore provide more relevant academic advice and utilize their financial resources for making the most from the available opportunities. As they are usually better educated than their lower class counterparts, they had direct institutional experience of post-secondary education and the disposition rewarded by the education system embodied within themselves (p. 4). They can also transfer the “hot knowledge” about educational options and study pathways and prospects to their students. “Hot knowledge,” including study information collected from social networks (as social capital) and academic recommendations informed by direct education experience (as cultural capital), is arguably of higher value than “cold knowledge,” meaning the information which is officially and publicly open to the public. It has always been their parents, embodying the cultural and social capital, who inform the middle-class students that community college is a newly available educational option, whereas working-class students, relying on “cold knowledge,” are advised to consider such educational option by their teachers or peers. To realize the educational option as a possible study pathway, the working-class students need to acquire their own cultural and social capital and more essentially figure out their financial arrangements. In the study by Wong (2016), although there were no middle-class students who show any worry about financial arrangements for their community college study, many working-class respondents were concerned about their employment and salary after investing in a sub-degree. While the middle-class students largely take their parents’ financial support for granted, nearly half of the students from working-class background need to finance their study by part-time jobs and government loans (instead of grants). Unlike their middle-class peers who can enjoy their parents’ informational resources and whole monetary sponsorship for study, working-class students consider the financial support from the family as the sacrifice of their parents (Wong 2016, 11). Given the different perceived realities, the working-class students feel an intense pressure from parents to excel in their studies, namely, being transferred to university. More interestingly, it was also discovered that middle-class parents, rather than the working-class counterparts, demonstrate a “critical tone of the education system” (Wong 2016, 8). After the education failure, some middle-class parents comfort and encourage their child by suggesting that their failure may not be the result of personal inadequacy or being lazy but due to the systemic problem of Hong Kong education.
Before the new educational option offered by Hong Kong’s community colleges in 2000, a second attempt for high school leavers for university admission refers to retaking the designated public exam(s). In theory, their initial educational failure ought not to terminate their opportunity for university education. Yet educational option by Hong Kong’s community colleges requires compensation with greater finance and time resources. Where education is neither publicly funded nor compulsory in the capitalist societies, the socioeconomic status of the students’ parents (and “parentocracy” as coined by Brown (1990) results in educational inequality, in which middle-class parents and hence students are privileged in many pursuits for academic excellence (De Graaf et al. 2000; Kim and Schneider 2005). Parental resources, capitals, and coping strategies in educational planning and making educational decisions are far more imperative than students’ own endeavors, competence, and actual learning (Ball 2003; Savage and Egerton 1997 cited by Wong 2016). Notwithstanding, the HKSAR government believes that the class gap for academic achievement can be narrowed by the financial support offered to bridge the disparity, the employment reality after graduation also needs to be taken in account to have a more holistic assessment. The next section will discuss the alignment problems between employment market and higher education massification.
Knowledge Economy: Alignment Problems between Employment Market and Higher Education Massification
From 1994 to 2016, there are 40,000 degree-holding labors joining the workforce each year, accounting for 9–29% of the total labor population. Although the general advancement in education is considered beneficial to the Hong Kong society, the creation of high-end job vacancies seems to fail to keep pace with the manpower adjustment. Worse still, it is found that sub-degree graduates have apparently a lower level of earnings compared to the graduates from publicly funded institutions (Chan 2012). Such phenomenon is ascribed to the decelerated economic development and handicapped progression toward a knowledge-based economy (Legislative Council Secretariat 2016, 7). In a survey by Forestier et al. (2013), only one out of three respondents indicated their sub-degree as offering “value for money,” in the condition that the sub-degrees demand higher fees than publicly funded program.
More problematically, as saturation gradually arises in the higher end of the labor market hierarchy, degree-holding labors are forced to attempt lower-end occupations that require less professional knowledge regardless of their education and qualifications. During 2008–2015, there were around 26% of the new degree-holding labors engaging in clerical, service, or sale-based employment, doubling the percentage of 12% from 1994 to 2001 (Legislative Council Secretariat 2016). By carefully examining the career distribution of the degree-holding labors in the past 21 years, it is noted that managerial and professional occupations barely house two-fifth of the new degree-holding labors. The percentage of university graduates employed by the managerial, administrative, and professional occupations has decreased significantly from 47% during 1994–2001 to 38% during 2008–15 (Legislative Council Secretariat 2016, 7).
In the past, associate professionals had been perceived as shelters to degree-holding labors who could not get a place in the managerial and professional sector. However, scarcity emerged in recent years in the supply of associate professional occupations. The percentage of degree-holding labors within this sector has hence decreased from 38% during 2001–08 to 33% during 2008–15 (Legislative Council Secretariat 2016, 8). As saturation gradually arises in the higher end of the labor market hierarchy, degree-holding labors need to attempt lower-end occupations that require less professional knowledge. For example, during 2008–15, there were around 26% of the new degree-holding labors engaging in clerical, service, or sale-based employment, doubling the percentage of 12% from 1994 to 2001 (Census and Statistics Department 2016, 8).
It is inevitable that workers engaging lower-end jobs will receive a wage cut regardless of their higher education background. Taking the year 2015 as an example, the monthly income median for managerial or professional positions is around US$4,870; for associate professionals, it has almost reduced by half to US$2,560. It will be further reduced to about US$1,410 to $1,667 for clerical or sale-based jobs. It is deduced that a portion of the younger generation may feel upset and disappointed when facing such discrepancy in wages, notwithstanding the higher education they have received previously (Census and Statistics Department 2016, 8).
In fact, income mobility in the Hong Kong opportunity structure deteriorated across the generations. According to Study on Earnings Mobility released by the HKSAR government, the average monthly income of labors graduated from universities in 2002 could be tripled in 2014 after joining the workforce for more than a decade (Census and Statistics Department 2016). Highly educated labors were most likely to have rapid income increase at the early stage of their careers compared to the less educated. Findings indicate that the first batch university graduates who were born in the mid-1960s could earn a monthly median of US$4,295 (in the equivalent cost of 2013) by the time they hit 35–39 years old, that is, 10–15 years after their initial employment. However, when the third batch university graduates who were born in the mid-1970s reach 35–39 years old, their monthly income median would barely be US$3,346. For the fifth batch university graduates who were born in the mid-1980s, the wage level at the initial stage of their careers would be among the lowest, althought they had not reached 30 in the benchmark year of 2013 (Census and Statistics Department 2016).
Therefore, even though graduates from the younger generation have successfully fixated a position at the labor market, it is obvious that their wages are lower than the previous generations’. Taking the fifth batch university graduates who were born in the mid-1980s as an example, if they could attain the highest 10% of the income ladder with success, their income earned between the ages of 35 and 39 would be US$7,000, still considerably lower than US$10,000 from the first batch university graduates under the same circumstances. Therefore, it is noted that the upward mobility has alleviated from the young elites than the older graduates (Legislative Council Secretariat 2016, 10).
As illustrated above, through envisaging their importance in preparing younger generation for employment in a knowledge-based economy (Legislative Council 2008, 25), the supply of high-end jobs fails to catch up with the continuous massification of higher education and corresponds to the demand of labors with post-secondary education. The problem is especially severe among the associate degree graduates. The reality echoes the argument by Kember (2010) that “the value of an associate degree as a suitable terminal award for employment in a knowledge-based economy is yet to be clearly established” (p. 167).
In all, the sustainability of Hong Kong higher education massification is not the core issue facing the higher education sector itself. Without a proactive direction and sense of progress, the sector tends to maintain its massified segment intact without making significant changes in inputs and costs, especially public expenditure of the processes. While it is responsive to the public consciousness and demands for accountability, the massified sector, as second tier of the system (Tang 2015a), continues to make forward “progress” but without a clear vision and strategies for significant improvement, fit for purpose, or pursuit of enhanced educational equality. Although one common indicator of “progress” is the attainment of university status by individual colleges, what always matters most is the figure of student enrollment as it determines whether the colleges can sustain themselves in the competitive education market through a viable financial model. Economic climate, ability to respond to employment market and global economy challenges, technology, level of political and social stability, and more importantly demography are the determinants of the progress which the massified segment of Hong Kong higher education can make. Higher education is considered by Hong Kong society essentially the public universities, which comprise the first tier of Hong Kong higher education sector. This group of first-rate universities is particularly keen on their quest for world-class university status, as measured by research productivity, ownership of competitive research grants, and definitely global university rankings. The Hong Kong higher education sector, alongside the public consciousness, shares the consensual value that the way in which its mass higher education segment will be sustained should be left to the market forces to determine. Among the excellent institutions is the City University of Hong Kong which has been making significant improvement in university ranking. In 2014, the University decided to sell out its well-operated community college to an Australian university (University of Wollongong) which aspires to turn the college into a private university.
Depending on how “higher education” is being redefined and classified, Hong Kong higher education can still be elitist (Kember 2010; Tang 2015a; Wong 2016; ). The positional good and elitist position of Hong Kong public universities are reinforced by admitting the elites of high school graduates who excelled in the public examinations for university entrance as well as international students. The tight and hence illiberal control of access by graduates of associate degree to their undergraduate places can help maintain their reputation (Kember 2010, 171,175). After all, the degree of articulation into the undergraduate places is not within their strategic plan for aspiring to attain the status of “world-class universities.”
While the Government might claim that mass higher education has been achieved, many do not accept the new provision as constituting higher education. The literature may note that moves towards mass higher education require fuzzy boundaries (Scott 1995) and new types of provision (Kaiser and de Weert 1994; Trow 1973), but the Hong Kong population has been reluctant to embrace this degree of fuzziness.
Rather, the creation of sub-degree programs has helped to reinforce the idea of the elitism of publicly funded degrees by first-tier Hong Kong universities (Kember 2010). In tradition, universities served the social elites and were seen as places for nurturing young adults from prestigious upper class. This had been a cultural value consensual to the lay population of colonial Hong Kong. In fact, the adoption of the American 2 + 2 community college system has been unusual to British Commonwealth systems, including Hong Kong system where elitism has (once) been core to the dignity of higher learning. To some, the addition of one aspect of the American higher education model to the Hong Kong higher education system, which shared the legacy of the British system, is groundbreaking and uncommon. Nonetheless, a significant process of massification via the introduction of a hybrid community college model has taken its place in the short history of Hong Kong higher education, while meritocracy and educational desire prevail in many aspects of its society and culture. All things taken into account, whether the massification through the development of community colleges can be considered a “democratic reality” or simply a “democratic rhetoric” (Tang 2015a) still remains the question.
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