First, two questions: what is an associate degree (AD) and why do students need it? Normally, an associate degree is defined as an undergraduate degree awarded by colleges and universities upon completion of a two-year course of study. In most countries, it serves as a bridge between higher secondary certificate (HSC) or diploma i.e. after 12 years of education, and a bachelor’s degree which is awarded after completion of 16 years of education. So, an associate degree is higher than higher secondary — nor intermediate in our parlance — and less than a bachelor’s.
At the outset, it seems simple; in Pakistan students attend college for two years, and upon completion a board of higher secondary or intermediate education awards them the certificate — or in case of A-Levels they get a senior Cambridge certificate — and go on to enroll in a four-year bachelor’s programme. This is simple for those who have the means and family support to continue for a full four-year period. There are millions of students in the country who want to continue their education after the 12th grade.
There are thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — who neither have the means nor do they have the family support needed to carry on with a four years’ rigorous study without a break. Most drop their studies after intermediate and end up looking for jobs without much to offer apart from their physical presence and a low level of skills and competence. Even more damaging it is for those who somehow start their bachelor’s study not having sufficient financial backup and after a year of two — and in some cases even after three years towards their degree — are compelled to abort their academic journey just because they cannot continue for various causes.
The situation becomes grimmer for those studying in private universities, for they charge a lot irrespective of financial condition of students. Some private universities do pretend to offer ‘scholarships’ or ‘discount’ on fees, but their so-called merit-based mechanism is so stringent that most needy students who come from low-income segments of society are automatically excluded because they cannot fulfil the criteria for such benevolence. It is not difficult to find students who spend the savings of their family in two to three years and then the resources dry up; for some, a supporter such as father or brother loses job or life and suddenly the family finds itself in an acute crisis.
The poor student in such cases desperately tries to beg or borrow but then gives up and the university — even after three years of education — refuses to grant any degree or certificate. In such cases, the educational institute is not at fault; it simply cannot award any piece of paper in addition to simple marksheets. The agony of such students cannot be felt by those who have not gone through such circumstances. If the student wants to postpone the studies for a couple of years, there is no provision for a split programme of studies.
Hence the need for an exit option for students in all disciplines after two years in a post-intermediate education. In other countries and regions, such degrees have various nomenclature: such as in England it is called the Foundation Degree, in Scotland it is the Diploma of Higher Education, and in the Republic of Ireland it is simply the Higher Certificate (HC). Such programmes are offered at both affiliated colleges and universities. In Australia, the Australian Qualification Framework (QF) introduced an associate degree in 2004. In the Netherlands, the system of higher education added the associate degree mainly to close the gap with the vocational education system.
Perhaps, the country where associate degrees are most common is the United States. With a relatively flexible system, an AD can be earned in two years or more at community and technical colleges, and even at some vocational schools and ordinary colleges. Following the same pattern, in Pakistan there is a need to introduce Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate in Science (AS) degrees. AA should be offered in humanities, business, and social sciences; whereas an AS degree should cater to the needs of students who want to study scientific and technical fields.
In the Pakistani QF there is a three-year DAE (Diploma of Associate Engineer), but the colleges that offer this provision are very few in comparison with the number of students who want to do it. A two-year technical or vocational programme can be called an Associate of Applied Science. The students should have an option to use the credits from the associate degree toward a bachelor’s degree, which is seldom possible in case of the DAE in Pakistan. In Canada the situation is even better in the sense that their colleges award a one-year certificate, two-year diploma or a three-year advanced diploma.
The best advantage of such system is that it offers exit options after every year of study, making it less stressful for struggling students and their families; and making it possible for them to join the workforce whenever they need to, without a threat of losing their efforts and money and ending up without any worthy paper. Later, they can join a three or four-year bachelor’s degree programme or a joint diploma-degree option. Such certificates can be even more useful for professions such as paramedicine, paralegal, and paratechnical.
In Pakistan, millions of students pass intermediate exams in pre-medical and pre-engineering but fail to get admission to professional colleges. Why not give them an option to earn an associate degree? Let’s say in paramedicine which is much more in need of paramedical staff with some qualification than unqualified dispenser and nurses that we see at most medical setups, especially at thousands of private clinics and hospitals across the country. After an associate degree in paramedicine, students should have an option to try again for an MBBS degree with a reduced duration of two to three years because they must have covered the courses of basic medicine at the associate level.
The Higher Education Commission in Pakistan did a good job by developing and releasing National Qualifications Framework of Pakistan 2015. It does have an AD option, but the problem is that in its enthusiasm to introduce a four-year bachelor’s degree across the board it has eliminated two-year bachelor’s programmes in most universities apparently because they fail to meet international standards of that level; and rightly so. Ideally, we should not have three different programmes for bachelor’s degrees i.e. two-year, three-year, and four-year, because that causes a lot of confusion for both students and their employers.
In private universities, Greenwich University in Karachi offers an associate degree option and in government colleges and universities an Associate Degree in Education (ADE) was introduced mostly with the help of USAID. This ADE was the right step forward to prepare better teachers for our schools.
To conclude, for post-intermediate education in Pakistan it should take four years to get a bachelor’s degree but there should be an exit option after two years with an associate degree; to enable students to complete their bachelor’s in two years at a later stage in any discipline. Since after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, education is a provincial subject, the provincial HECs should take a lead in this matter.