HK students need diverse study and career pathways

April 17, 2015 14:15
Vocational education is underdeveloped in Hong Kong, leading to a high unemployment rate in the younger age group. Photo: HKEJ

For years, there has been much hot air among bureaucrats about "multiple pathways for students" in Hong Kong. 

Despite that, the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum is essentially university-oriented, deeming that academic exam on students as the only way to evaluate talent. Vocational education has been marginalized.

Not surprisingly, in 2014, only 40.4 percent of day school candidates met the minimum admission requirements for Bachelor's Degree programs. As for the remainder, some plunge into the job market prematurely; others scrimp to pay for the expensive Associate Degree programs, only to find that chances of transferring to university are just too slim.

Many more fall into the ranks of the jobless. Between 2012 and January this year, the unemployment rate among the age group 15-19 has been lingering between 10 percent and 15 percent.

In this regard, the well-established vocational education system in Germany may provide some lesson for the city. In Germany, more than 60 percent of young people enroll into the renowned "dual system".

Students study at school for one to two days and undergo apprentice training in companies for the rest of the week, with training allowance paid by the employers. Currently there are as many as 340 state-recognized occupations for students to choose, ranging from technician to commercial clerk.

The dual system does not only guarantee a sufficient and stable supply of talents for different industries, but also helps young people accumulate practical work experience and facilitates their transition to the workplace. According to Eurostat, between 2012 and 2014, youth unemployment rate of Germany was the lowest in Europe, staying below 8 percent even in the aftermath of the financial tsunami.

In Hong Kong, vocational education is underdeveloped. Category B (Applied Learning) subjects in the NSS curriculum merely give an overview of industries, but cannot effectively impart practical work skills or help students acquire professional qualifications. No wonder only few students choose these subjects.

Modeled on the dual system of Germany, the Pilot Training and Support Scheme of Vocational Training Council (VTC) provides some reason for optimism. Still, there are several issues worth noting:

First, as in Germany, the business sector should play a significant role in the curriculum design, quality assurance and assessment. This ensures that the curriculum caters to the changing needs of the industry and enhances recognition of the program. As it is not compulsory for companies to join chambers in Hong Kong, the administration should also give due regard to the question of how to coordinate non-chamber companies and monitor the quality of their training.

Second, the government should make sure that the scheme is dovetailed to other education and career pathways, rather than being isolated into yet another dead-end that leads students to nowhere. To support students transferring to university, Germany has allocated funds for universities to tailor-make suitable programs and accredit vocational training towards university courses. These bridging measures deserve serious consideration by the administration.

More importantly, the government should continue to roll out higher qualifications of vocational training for graduates to pursue. In the long term, authorities should consider revising the qualifications framework and recognizing the qualifications of excellent vocational training courses as correspondingly equivalent with Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees.

Third, a substantial increase in the scale of the pilot scheme, currently providing only 2,000 places, is needed if it is to generate any meaningful impact. By then, more students would be able to choose and excel in academic or vocational education, whichever suits them best. This, however, also means that VTC would be in direct competition with grammar schools and might have an impact on the admissions and staff establishment of the latter, which would definitely arouse public concerns. 

Last but not least, vocational education spreads over several policy areas, including development of industries and trends in labor market. This calls for far-sighted planning and coordination of different departments. The administration should accord due importance to vocational education as a development strategy.

In a word, the Hong Kong government should shed the "one-size-fits-all" mindset and revitalize our education system by reinforcing vocational education.

A broad and well-articulated multi-pathways system should be constructed under which students can freely explore diverse study and career options and climb up the ladder according to their interests and talents. Hong Kong doesn't lack talents; it is just that our education system is too fixated on a few academic "geniuses".

Ben Lee is the writer of this article.

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Savantas Policy Institute