Research | Education and human resources | 2017-09-05

Restructuring vocational education system: Exploring dual pathways to achieve career and educational aspirations

The Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre (the Centre) released a study on ‘Realising your dreams through vocational education and training (VET)’ today. The study examines the current VET system in Hong Kong and suggests ways to enhance the VET system. With the focuses on restructuring VET’s academic pathways and reinforcing the public’s confidence in VET, the study aims at helping students to develop their talents into strengths, and to their fullest potential. In return, they will help build a vibrant talent pool that facilitates the overall development of Hong Kong.

The Centre commissioned the Education University of Hong Kong to conduct a research, titled ‘VET and the development of young people’, from June to December 2016. In an attempt to explore the success factors of VET systems in different regions, as well as obtain a more comprehensive understanding of attitudes of parents, students, teachers and different stakeholders towards VET, the research was carried out by means of comparative case studies, surveys, in-depth interviews and focus group interviews. A total of 2,493 respondents participated in a telephone survey and a school survey, among which 1,699 were parents while 794 were secondary school students.

One of the key study findings is a lack of recognition. The majority of respondents – 68% of students and 69% of parents – had never heard of ‘vocational and professional education and training’. VET is considered as an inferior educational choice despite the respondents in general recognised the practicality of vocational education. In 2012-2015, the average number of full-time students studying Vocational Training Council’s programmes at the levels below Higher Diploma per 100 Secondary 4 to 6 students is eight only.

Even though the Government is keen on promoting ABC occupations, i.e. Airport, Building and Care, the finding suggests otherwise. The majority of interviewed students were not interested in these occupations (on a scale of 1-5, the average scores were below 3). Some teachers surveyed pointed out that it is difficult to attract young people into these industries unless a clear career path is established.

The Centre’s Vice-chairman and Convenor of the study Mr Lau Ming-wai said, ‘A traditional mindset for academic success is deeply rooted in society. Going to college is a goal for most students, with VET being considered as an inferior option. The number of undergraduates continues to rise in the wake of diploma inflation, however, there are insufficient matching jobs to fully absorb the undergraduates. As a result, it leads to serious mismatches in job skills, with highly educated students taking up low-skilled jobs. The Centre believes that it is essential to enhance the development of VET, as it will help nurture a more dynamic talent pool for the city, and build better pathways for young people and the long-term development of Hong Kong.’

Based on the study’s findings, the Centre enquired into the academic pathways of senior secondary school students and put forth six major recommendations, which provide more flexible choices to integrate young people’s career and academic aspirations.

Secondary Education

1. Introducing ‘Taster programmes’

Most students in Hong Kong undertake mainstream academic pathways. Those who struggle to learn through book knowledge may think they are being marginalised and left with no choice. To cater for students’ diverse learning needs, the Centre recommends introducing ‘Junior Job Tasting Programmes’ in Secondary 3, enabling students to explore their interests and skills at an earlier stage. This arrangement will help students better understand career-oriented courses and workplaces, allowing them to choose the academic pathway that best suits them in the senior secondary level.

2. Reforming ApL courses from ‘2’ to ‘3’

To deepen knowledge and understanding of Applied Learning (ApL) subjects, the Centre suggests providing an additional year of practical training on top of the current two-year curriculum of ApL courses. The course outline of the first two years of ApL courses remains the same. The newly introduced third year will integrate practical training such as handling real-life situations into courses, in the hope of equipping students with essential skills for the world of work, as well as boosting employers’ confidence in graduates. To enhance the recognition of ApL subjects, we also recommend the Government and related Industry Training Advisory Committees to study the feasibility of issuing a professional certificate to graduates whose performance meets the specific requirements.

Among 35 ApL subjects in the 2017/19 academic year, only 28 are registered under the Qualifications Framework (QF) Level 3. The Centre recommends the Government accrediting all ApL subjects at QF Level 3 in the long run, reinforcing confidence amongst students, parents and employers in ApL learning, as well as ensuring that students have a seamless transition from school to the workplace.

3. Standardising grading system across ApL and DSE subjects

At present, best performing candidates who take any Category A core subjects or other elective subjects in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (DSE) are awarded level 5**. In contrast, candidates who take ApL subjects and achieve the best performance are awarded level 4 only starting from 2018, after the programme has been modified. To some candidates, they may think it is not worth the effort to study ApL subjects because no matter how hard they try, they will not get the ‘same treatment’. This erects barriers hindering the development and weakening value of ApL subjects.

The Centre suggests reforming assessment of ApL subjects in DSE through standardising its grading system across ApL and DSE subjects. The ‘same treatment’ will help enhance its recognition when applying for admission to universities. Besides, VET institutions are encouraged to offer priority admission to students who have completed ApL courses. In addition, holders of Attained with Distinction (II) may obtain credit exemptions. The Centre believes that these incentives will motivate more students to take ApL subjects, in which they better understand their work aptitudes through learning, thus enhancing the credibility of ApL courses in academic study.

4. Establishing iLab school to nurture IT talent

The Centre’s Vice-chairman Mr Lau Ming-wai stated, ‘In an era of global technology advances, there is a great thirst for IT talent. Hong Kong’s IT development still lags behind leading-edge competitors such as Singapore. If the city fails to speed up development in this field, the long-term competitiveness of Hong Kong will definitely be affected.’

To unleash potential in innovation, the Centre recommends establishing a pioneering school – iLab – in Hong Kong. iLab is a secondary school with a key emphasis on STEM education, which integrates multiple subjects in different areas. With the principle of ‘One institute, two wayouts’, graduates would be able to obtain double diplomas under both DSE and IT field. This arrangement will concurrently provide students with articulation pathways for further studies and work, enabling them to enjoy greater flexibility before making the next move.

Taking the needs of various industries into account, extensive experiential learning opportunities and internship programmes are introduced into iLab’s curriculum design and programmes for teachers, aiming at equipping students with all-roundness and professional competencies. The talent nurtured by iLab will not be confined to the traditional IT field, but extended to industries that have surging demand for IT professionals, such as caring and financial industries, addressing skills and workforce development needs as a whole.

Tertiary Education

5. Promoting a mechanism of mutual credit recognition among tertiary institutions

Articulation pathways for students to further studies has always been a concern. To ensure students to achieve a balanced development in all aspects by acquiring basic knowledge of various subjects, it is necessary to facilitate mutual recognition of academic qualifications.

In view of broadening the selection of subjects that are related to generic skills and general education, the Centre suggests introducing a mechanism of mutual credit recognition into tertiary education: academic-oriented students can select career-oriented courses that develop practical skills in specific areas and vice versa. The Centre believes that this highly flexible arrangement can help students better equip themselves with diverse knowledge and experiences, thus enhancing their employability.

6. Validating previous work experience as tertiary entrance requirements

Workers who have accumulated extensive work experience and professional knowledge of specific industries may wish their skills be recognised. Under the current ‘Recognition of Prior Learning’ Mechanism, it allows practitioners of different industries to obtain QF-recognised qualifications and facilitates their subsequent progression in learning, and probably in careers. However, the study findings indicate that nearly half of the surveyed students (49%) and surveyed parents (52%) did not know the functions of QF, only 32% of the surveyed students and 24% of the surveyed parents knew that QF provides benchmarks for determining the level of complexity and difficulty of individual competency. This demonstrates that the majority of respondents lack a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between VET and QF, and appears doubtful of the VET-to-work transition.

The Centre suggests validating workers’ previous work experience as one of the tertiary entrance requirements. Through admitting them based on their competencies, it will enhance the opportunity and flexibility of receiving tertiary education, enabling people to pursue their studies at a later stage of life. To facilitate workers to adapt to the new school life, offering them pre-college programmes may help.

The Centre’s Vice-chairman Mr Lau Ming-wai concluded, ‘I believe that a lot of you have used or heard about the Chinese phrase “Every trade has its master” many times, but not too many people are willing to support their kids to follow their passion over mainstream paths. Young people have different strengths, and we must accept the fact that mainstream school does not work for everybody. A healthy and vibrant society comprises doctors, lawyers, accountants; at the same time, it has remarkable athletes, bakers, musicians, YouTubers, performers, etc. Going to college is not the only pathway for young people. Through VET, we hope to enhance young people’s professional skills and competencies in society.’

More information about the mini-game ‘Wayouts for Secondary 3 graduates’ and study report is available at our thematic site (


Full Report (Chinese only)
Executive Summary
Presentation Material
EduHK’s Study (Chinese Only)
EduHK’s Presentation