Degrees of separation
Should I stay or should I go?' The Clash famously sang in 1982. This could easily apply to many Hongkongers deliberating whether to move overseas or remain in Hong Kong to study career-advancing postgraduate programmes.
According to a number of talent-recruitment agencies, the dilemma facing many individuals pursuing postgraduate education is how employers evaluate the merits of various qualifications and where they are obtained. They say that while there is often the perception that it is better to hire students who have an overseas university degree over those who graduated locally, there are also employers who acknowledge the value of locally acquired qualifications.
Marc Burrage, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong, says that in general, Hong Kong employers appreciate overseas-educated candidates due to their international exposure and perceived better language skills.
He adds, however, that one of the main benefits of studying a postgraduate degree locally is the connections made during the course. 'If you intend to develop your career in Hong Kong rather than overseas, then completing your postgraduate degree locally will allow you to build local connections,' he says. 'This will, of course, be a big advantage to your career in the long term.'
Another element an employer considers is whether or not the qualification was obtained on a full-time basis. 'Many candidates are opting to study overseas degrees locally via long-distance learning, but unfortunately this is not always well-received by employers who do not perceive the quality of such a study route,' he says.
Martin Cerullo, managing director for development, Asia-Pacific, at Alexander Mann Solutions, notes that employers are more interested in the quality of the degree course and its content, rather than simply where a person studies.
'There are fantastic degrees available locally. If you are studying locally and there is an opportunity to do an exchange abroad, this is an excellent way of adding international exposure,' he says.
Eunice Ng, director at Avanza Consulting for Asia-Pacific, shares a similar view. She says that when it comes to qualification preferences, employers might be impressed by candidates graduating from top-tier business schools such as Harvard and Wharton, but they also highly rate graduates from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
'If the business looks as if it will benefit, an employer might show a preference for someone who has an overseas qualification, but this would usually need to come from a prestigious institution,' she says.
Alternatively, she says an advantage of enrolling in local postgraduate programmes is that people can work and study simultaneously.
Another possible advantage to local study is the time it saves, explains Lancy Chui, managing director of ManpowerGroup Hong Kong. 'For disciplines requiring accreditation or certification, such as accounting, legal or medical, locally acquired qualifications should be more convenient as overseas degrees may result in graduates having to pursue additional conversion courses,' she says.
Taking a macro perspective, Christopher Aukland, regional director, Michael Page International and Page Personnel, believes that it is a matter of matching the right qualifications with the right jobs.
'There will always be a keen demand for high-flying job-seekers with postgraduate degrees from top universities such as Cambridge, Cornell, Harvard and Oxford. Equally, though, there is massive demand for people with locally acquired postgraduate qualifications,' he says.
The impression that job-seekers with an overseas postgraduate qualification can expect a higher salary also carries some provisos, Aukland adds. For example, an individual with an overseas MBA, but little experience, is unlikely to be offered a higher salary than a candidate with an MBA from one of Hong Kong's leading business schools and a certain level of experience.
From a student perspective, Andy Ann, CEO and founder of digital media and advertising firm New Digital Noise, says he was enlightened by his overseas professors and classmates while studying psychology at the University of British Columbia. 'The experience gave me the motivation to break boundaries and seek a career and life I can really enjoy,' he says.
Meanwhile, by choosing to study locally, Olly Arthey, a former JPMorgan trader who recently completed his MBA at the University of Hong Kong, felt he was afforded the all-important chance to make valuable contacts. 'An MBA is a lot about teamwork, project management and networking, which is why I wanted to study locally,' he says.