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Student numbers surge during financial crisis

Published on Friday, 05 Mar 2010
Tens of thousands of university graduates from Hong Kong have chosen to continue their studies in local and overseas postgraduate programmes, as their career opportunities have been limited considerably by the global financial crisis.
Wendy Cheng
Timmy Sung
Kevin Lau

The global financial crisis battered Hong Kong's economy last year and, for some, the plummeting share market was matched with a corresponding decline in their career prospects. For others, it represented the decisive factor in their resolve to pursue postgraduate study.

As Hong Kong's unemployment rate rose from 3 per cent to almost 5.5 per cent, local universities saw a boom in applications for their postgraduate programmes.

Whether building on their existing skills base or seeking new qualifications, tens of thousands of applicants turned to taught and research postgraduate courses to improve their standing in a competitive labour market.

For many who managed to secure a place in a university, their personal financial crisis was just beginning.

Wendy Cheng Hoi-ling had completed a bachelor of arts, but her pride at graduation was overshadowed by dire employment prospects.

After weeks of painful deliberation, she decided to invest her savings in further study at an international university.

"The crisis was the catalyst for my deciding to continue with postgraduate studies. I had to look for a career that was stable and less vulnerable to economic fluctuations, but that also tied in with my personality. Finance was an option but, ultimately, I decided to [go for] a career that matched my personality," Cheng says.

Despite the financial difficulties of studying abroad, she is determined to complete her one-year master of science in human resources management at University of Birmingham. "Choosing human resources was completely different to my undergraduate studies, but it has given me a stronger foothold in the corporate sector.

"In this highly unpredictable economy, these skills will hopefully prevent the pain of being jobless."

But getting through the year is no picnic. "I'm finding it really hard to enjoy my studies. Because of the intense competition for scholarships, I now have the added distraction of having to look for part-time work when retailers [in Britain] aren't hiring, while also contending with family pressures from home in Hong Kong. It's no holiday."

The Chinese University's graduate school received 25 per cent more applications to its programmes this year. Among the 20,000 applicants was Timmy Sung Shiu-chung, who was prompted by the economic malaise to diverge from his journalism degree to a master's degree in corporate communication.

"In terms of what I should study, the economic crisis probably convinced me beyond any doubt that I did not want to get involved in banking or finance. With corporations firing staff, starting salaries plunging and few people hiring graduates, I had no confidence of finding work," Sung says.

With only a part-time job, he is feeling the pinch financially. "This course costs HK$80,000, so it is big burden on me and my family. I just hope it is worth it."

Illustrative of how graduates have reacted differently to the economic climate, advertising and marketing manager Ryan Andrews has taken the opposite approach to Sung, embracing journalism rather than moving away from it.

"I had been considering the master's degree in journalism at University of Hong Kong before the crisis hit, so that wasn't really a factor in choosing what to study. The specific discipline I chose came more into play with the realisation that, with more competition and a tighter job market, you were going to have to work harder and diversify your skills set," he says.

"At the very least, the crisis gave journalists more to write about."

For him, the financial crisis proved a distraction from study. "Although I work full time, studying became more difficult at the height of the uncertainty because you weren't as clear headed as you might have been when everything was chugging along smoothly," Andrews says. "When you wake up and hear the sky is falling, you walk around with a feeling of anxiety."

As an academic, Kevin Lau Kai-wing turned to a niche he recognised within the technology sector and began the master of science degree in multimedia and entertainment technology at Polytechnic University.

"I actually began my studies before the crisis hit, working full time and studying part time. When the crisis hit, I was in a fortunate position to have a stable job in the education sector," Lau says.

"A few months after the crisis, I was offered a high-paying job in Shanghai but decided to turn it down.

"The advertising market and consumer buying habits with regards to entertainment have changed since the crisis.

"I'll still finish my studies but the prospects afterwards no longer look so buoyant.

"This recession will be around for a long time so academia is once again looking like the safe option."

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