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College degree – worthwhile or just a piece of paper?

Mass inflation’s headlong “race to the bottom” occurs when – seemingly without warning – the general public realises that the over-issued, poorly backed currency they possess is, ultimately, just coloured paper.

Recent news reports that local asso­ciate degree holders earn – after two years of self-funded study – about the same as secondary-school leavers have caused academic soul-searching. A senior official from one leading institutional provider of these courses opined – with unintended irony – that Hong Kong’s employment market has readjusted itself to the large number of sub-degree graduates.

Let’s face it, everyone involved in Hong Kong’s higher education sector is complicit; students know when course materials, lecturers and examinations are unchalleng­ing; academics wilfully look the other way at collapsing standards; admin­istrators remain obsessed with ex­panding their particular college’s league table rank­ings; and institu­tional bean-counters nickel-and-dime everything in sight. As ever, nothing makes people less likely to “know” some­thing than when their jobs and promotions depend on not knowing it. And so it is with this particular local Ponzi scheme.

Historically, social mobility in Chinese society devolved from educa­tion; the liter­ate seldom starved, which was why poor families readily sacrificed themselves to provide educational opportunities. In mod­ern times, qualifications could be readily monetised. Primary level was required for all but the most menial jobs by the 1970s while secondary graduates were paid more depending on whe­ther they had achieved Form One, Form Three or Form Six stand­ard. Specific technical qualifications added extra pay; post-graduates earned more than undergraduate-degree holders, and so it went on.

Individuals, therefore, can track quite closely what they feel they should earn from their alleged educational attainments. When this particular currency becomes widely devalued, youth unrest is an inevitable consequence. And when the job inter­view question “Did you go to univ­er­sity?” becomes “Which university did you go to?”, grade inflation problems are starkly apparent. Britain, Australia and the United States have similar problems.

But what about the other end of Hong Kong’s academic spectrum – the taught master’s degrees that are among the tertiary education indus­try’s biggest money-spinners? A breath­taking array of speciality courses – which all lead to a degree, of sorts – appear every autumn, and new products constantly enter the market. While the Hong Kong mania for collecting pieces of paper offers a key motivation, widespread anecdotal evidence indicates that women – and, to a lesser extent, men – of a certain age become serial master’s-degree candidates in the hope that their “classmate circle” might eventually provide a hard-to-find partner.

Taught master’s courses are tidy money-spinners for cash-strapped academic departments – particularly in the humanities – and help admini­strators play the institutional ratings game. Contract confirmation, promo­tions and eventual tenure depend on the number of postgradu­ate students an academic supervises, which makes partici­pa­tion in these rackets even more compel­ling. Overall output quality remains, shall we say, variable.

One close friend, whom I shall call Mary, has lectured on a taught master’s degree programme in a leading Hong Kong tertiary insti­tution for nearly a decade. Of the several hundred students who have now passed through her class­room, she privately admits to having full confidence in the professional abilities of a mere handful. Mary takes her annually oversubscribed course seriously, and both students and other faculty members are very happy with what she does. Raising serious ques­tions about whether her graduates can actually do “what it claims on the label” would change nothing, except possibly her own employment status.

But, at the end of the day, it’s a pleasant enough job that pays well. And so, like every­one else involved in these courses, Mary shuts up and takes the money. However, she doesn’t pretend to herself that she’s somehow changing the world.