‘We need to train talent’: will Hong Kong’s applied sciences universities fix manpower crunch or fall flat amid lingering ‘second class’ label?

Hong Kong graduate Luka Chow had been an accountant for five years and was about to be promoted to manager when he decided he wanted to work in healthcare instead.

He signed up for a new four-year degree programme at Tung Wah College (TWC), a private institution, and was among its first batch of physiotherapy graduates last year.

“I wanted to help people suffering physical pain,” recalled Chow, now in his 30s. “If there was no such college for me to study physiotherapy, I’m afraid I would still be an accountant.”

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He said his first degree was focused on academic knowledge, whereas the second emphasised practical elements to train students to become professionals.

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“We had to complete about 1,000 hours of clinical practicum. The teachers were all so caring, some of them were former physiotherapists,” he said.

Although Tung Wah College has not yet received private university status, Chow’s degree is considered academically equivalent to similar degrees from other campuses in Hong Kong and around the world.

The college is among institutes in the running to be upgraded to a university of applied sciences (UAS), a subject raised by Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu in his policy address in October of last year.

He said such institutions would provide “an alternative path to success for young people who aspire to pursue a career in the technical professions” and Hong Kong could have its first UAS as soon as next year.

Tung Wah College is among the institutes in the running to be upgraded to a university of applied sciences. Photo: Handout

A government source later explained there would be a two-step process for an existing institution to become a UAS. It must first become a private university, with the approval of the chief executive’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, before the Education Bureau would consider whether to support its rebranding as a UAS.

Hong Kong has eight public universities funded by the government and they are regarded as traditional and research-oriented institutions.

There are four private universities – Metropolitan University, Shue Yan University, Hang Seng University and the newly elevated Saint Francis University – and some self-financed tertiary institutions offering bachelor’s degree programmes which could be eligible to apply for UAS status.

Sally Chan Wai-chi, president of Tung Wah College, said research universities and UAS, which focused on vocational and practical training, were equal but had different missions.

“I do not think either has a higher status,” she said, adding that it was not good to suggest that one was inferior.

Sally Chan, president of Tung Wah College, says research universities and UAS are equal but have different missions. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Metropolitan University president Paul Lam Kwan-sing said the UAS was not a new concept in education but would be a new type of university in Hong Kong.

The tertiary sector generally expects his university to become the first UAS. Founded in 1989 and formerly the Open University of Hong Kong, it has more than 13,000 students at seven schools offering over 140 programmes.

Lam said his university was ready to achieve UAS status as it was already “this type of university”.

Metropolitan University’s signature programmes include areas in high demand, such as nursing, physiotherapy, medical laboratory technology, building services engineering and surveying. About 2,000 to 3,000 local and overseas internships are offered to provide its undergraduates early exposure to these industries every year.

Practical, focused on workplace skills

Applied sciences universities have existed around the world for several decades, particularly in Europe. Germany has 246 such universities which attract more than two-fifths of all first year students, according to official data.

Established in the late 1960s to help German industry maintain its international competitiveness, they focus on practical elements of education, including mandatory internships.

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UAS7, the alliance of seven such German universities, said they ran classes of about 30 to allow for individual supervision and mentorship by professors. Only a few lectures and courses were taught in lecture halls with about 100 students.

Lecturers had a minimum of three to five years’ professional experience in industry or commerce besides their academic qualifications.

Industry experience enabled them to impart relevant workforce-oriented skills, and often provided valuable business connections for the university, researchers and students.

‘UAS prompted by staff crunch’

Lam and Chan agreed that Hong Kong’s workforce shortage in recent years, caused partly by a wave of emigration, brought the idea for applied sciences universities to the forefront.

“There are manpower shortages in many sectors,” Lam said. “We are still running short of manpower after attracting talent from elsewhere and retaining manpower, but we need to train our talent.”

He said it was common for graduates from traditional institutions to switch to other professions and that mobility contributed to the shortage too.

On the other hand, his students were dedicated to their chosen professions and were not only “work-ready” by the time they graduated, but some even landed jobs during their internships too.

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Chan said traditional universities “scrambling for rankings” were not focused on training professional and technical personnel.

She added that the knowledge-based society was also pushing the rebranding of postsecondary institutions.

“Nowadays, it’s not enough for professionals to only obtain a higher diploma, they need to move up to a degree level and even to master’s level,” she said. “We should have UAS to offer would-be professional personnel internships.”

She said her college would be ready to apply for university status in the 2025-26 academic year, meaning an application to become a UAS would come after.

Its most popular programme is nursing, with its graduates becoming registered nurses just like their counterparts from traditional universities.

Alan Lau Kin-tak, president of the Technological and Higher Education Institute, urged the government to allow it to skip the university step and go directly to being made a UAS.

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He said the two-step process took too long. His institute was now securing the requirements to apply for an upgrade to university status, and it would take at least three years more before it could apply to become a UAS.

The institute offers 20 degree programmes, including in areas such as design to information technology, hospitality, business and sports and recreation management. It had more than 2,500 students in the 2021-22 academic year.

According to the government’s plan, Hong Kong could have its first UAS as early as next year and the university would lead others as well as potential postsecondary institutions to form an alliance to promote themselves by making use of a start-up fund offered by the government.

The government acknowledged that there was a need to improve awareness of “the importance of vocational and professional education and training” among students, parents and the community, the policy address said.

‘Government should lead in boosting UAS’

Lam said the government should take the lead in not discriminating against graduates from self-financed institutions. He noted that only graduates of public universities were eligible for various schemes under a government bureau encouraging students to start businesses and offering internships.

“The government should not let people have the impression that UAS graduates are second-class citizens,” he said.

Lau said the government should let institutions which had been dedicated to vocational training all this time and already had strong links with the industry to get UAS status and not “randomly” upgrade some just to get things done.

“The government should not let UAS to ‘cry up wine and sell vinegar’, or it will tarnish the image of the UAS and lose the people’s trust,” he said.

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Tung Wah’s Chan said the government had merely tossed out the concept without elaboration and had to do more to promote and explain what applied sciences universities meant.

“The most important message the government needs to send is that a UAS is not a lesser university. It is not desirable for the public to have that impression,” she said.

For a start, the government will offer more fee subsidies to students in self-financed institutions.

Since 2015, the Study Subsidy Scheme for Designated Professions has covered part of the fees of students in self-financed institutions undergoing courses for jobs in demand, such as architecture and engineering, computer science, creative industries, financial technology, healthcare, insurance, logistics, sports and recreation, testing and certification and tourism and hospitality.

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Students in these programmes pay tuition fees similar to subsidised bachelor’s programmes in public universities, while fees for non-subsidised courses can cost twice as much.

In the next academic year, 3,305 places in 52 first-year degree programmes and 1,520 places in 41 top-up degree programmes at eight self-financed institutions will be eligible for the subsidies.

The government said programmes offered by applied sciences universities in future would have priority for subsidies under the scheme.

Good pay, but perceptions of universities being ‘second class’ persist

Jobs and pay are indicators of how well graduates are doing and in that regard, some of Hong Kong’s self-financed institutions have a strong record.

The average monthly salary of graduates from Tung Wah College’s class of 2021-22 was HK$30,286 (US$3,878), lower than only the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), which have medical graduates. Most of the college’s healthcare graduates found jobs as nurses and therapists.

According to a Metropolitan University survey last year, about 90 per cent of its 2022 graduates had found jobs, started their own businesses, pursued further studies in Hong Kong or overseas, or made other career plans.

Metropolitan University president Paul Lam says that while the UAS is not a new concept in education, it will be a new type of university in Hong Kong. Photo: Sun Yeung

The survey also found that the graduates’ average monthly salary was HK$21,000, higher than what graduates of two public universities, Baptist University and Lingnan University, were earning.

The average starting pay of graduates from the eight public universities was HK$25,250, according to official data.

But such outcomes do not necessarily attract students to the self-financed institutions.

Yannes Chan, a Form Six student, is keen to pursue nursing but admitted that she preferred attending a traditional university if her grades were good enough.

“Public universities give students a better impression, whereas the other institutions are like second class from students’ view,” she said.

She attended the information days at various institutions in October and November and came away with a better impression of the public universities.

At CUHK, for example, the nursing programme offered real cadavers for anatomy classes whereas other private institutions promised only virtual reality bodies, she said.

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Tung Wah’s Chan conceded that students and parents still favoured traditional universities, saying: “It is indisputable that every parent in Hong Kong wants their kids to pursue their studies in university. If you ask them to go to colleges, parents may think those institutions are inferior.”

If the status quo remained, she added, the self-financed postsecondary institutions would be treated only as the backup plan for students who did not qualify for the public universities.

Chan said the UAS would not only target secondary school leavers but also working adults who wished to upgrade their skills or switch careers.

“In the past, you worked in the field you graduated from,” she said. “But now you can change your career as there are so many chances to study another profession again. It is very common practice in other places, but not in Hong Kong.”

Chan and Lam said children need to learn from a young age that people do different jobs and play various roles that are equally important.

Lam said: “Not everyone will be an astronomer, some will be in healthcare while others will be in aircraft engineering.”

But changing ingrained attitudes cannot be done overnight. “It’s a gradual change, but it needs to be started,” he said.

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