A difficult first assignment: finding the funding
Taking the plunge to go back to school after several years in the professional arena can be a daunting prospect, and the considerable costs involved can make it all the more intimidating. But for the canny postgraduate who knows where to look, there is funding available to sweeten the bitter financial pill.
Local government funding might not foot all your bills, but it is a possible to find other sources of assistance that will, in some cases, meet all of your study fees plus living and travel costs.
Hunting down and securing funding can be as much work as finding the right course - if not more - so it is vital to start planning as early as possible and spend the time it takes to research all possible avenues.
The Continuing Education Fund allows eligible candidates to claim back 80 per cent of fees paid, up to a maximum of HK$10,000.
Since 2003 it has been available to university graduates and a limited number of master's courses are now included on the list of recognised courses. Although the fund is never going to be able to pay a postgraduate's entire fees, financial assistance should never be sniffed at, as any cash-strapped student knows.
Nevertheless, there are many other cash pools available, particularly for those planning to study overseas. A Google search of the word 'scholarship' brings up around 44.9 million hits. The internationalscholarships.com website has more than 1,200 awards listed on its database.
The Home Affairs Bureau's website has a list of almost a dozen local trust funds which provide assistance for further studies. This includes charities such as the Sir Robert Black Trust Fund, the Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fund, and the Li Po Chun Charitable Trust Fund, which regularly support postgraduate students studying both locally and overseas.
For those planning to head further afield, foreign governments are one of the best places to start looking for support. Keen to attract top professional talent from around the world, a number of governments tempt postgraduate students with the offer of meeting tuition fees and, in some cases, living and travel expenses.
The Australian government offers Endeavour Awards for both taught and research postgraduate courses. These can be worth up to A$160,000 (almost HK$1 million) over a possible three years, including course fees, a living allowance and travel costs.
Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology offers research students from Hong Kong or Macau under the age of 35 a monthly allowance of 170,000 yen (HK$11,560) for up to two years. Students of language or culture aged 18 to 30 can also apply for a monthly bursary of 134,000 yen, lasting one year.
The Chevening Scholarships are an excellent source of assistance for students planning to head to a British university.
Applicable to full-time one-year taught master's courses, the scholarships include up to #14,000 (HK$221,600) in tuition fees plus flights and a 'contribution' towards living costs.
More than 2,400 of these are awarded worldwide through the British Council each year, with 480 given out in Hong Kong since they were first offered here in 1996. While the general scholarships are applicable to any British university, the British Council also distributes institute-specific scholarships for Cambridge and Sheffield universities, co-funded by local and international sponsors.
Other countries, including Canada, have similar schemes, while tuition fees in places such as France, Germany and Sweden are much lower as a result of high levels of government investment, even for overseas students.
Individual universities also fund scholarship programmes - often through private donations - and these are most commonly based on academic merit.
In an increasingly market-oriented higher education sector, universities deem it worthwhile investing to attract the brightest and most promising students. Most tend to divert a larger proportion of this funding to postgraduate programmes than to undergraduates. Some, however, are not based on academic criteria.
Oxford University's Said School of Business offers the Skoll Scholarship for entrepreneurs who have devised schemes aimed at effecting positive social change - even if the attempts ended in failure.
Minority social groups are also eligible for special scholarships. Haas School of Business at University of California, Berkeley, for example, runs an award for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students who 'show promise of becoming positive role models'.
But applying for scholarships can be complicated. It is important to plan well in advance and be aware of deadlines. Trust funds and governments are unlikely to entertain applications that arrive after the cut-off date.
The decision-making process often involves more than one round of interviews, and it may be several months for prospective students to find out if they have been successful.
The Rotary Club, for example, is just starting the applications process for its Ambassadorial Scholarships for the 2009-10 academic year, with decisions due to be made late next year.
Good places to start
Continuing Education Fund www.sfaa.gov.hk/cef
www.rotary.org/en StudentsAnd Youth/EducationalPrograms/Ambassadorial Scholarships/Pages/ridefault.aspx
Australia www.australianscholarships.gov.au Canada