Job security a priority
These economically depressed times are reshaping school leavers' university subject choices. Professional and more general qualifications are emerging as this year's most sought-after programmes thanks to their flexibility and promise of job security.
Applicants are gravitating towards courses that allow more elasticity, offering a broad subject overview before focusing on any one specialisation.
The University of Hong Kong's (HKU) top draws this year - bachelor of science and bachelor of engineering programmes - were restructured to reflect this trend. They each consolidated their range of courses under one common degree so that students can postpone making a decision on their specialisation.
'The new programme structure has boosted applicant numbers. Students now have the first semester to explore which of the 12 disciplines they wish to specialise in before making an informed choice in the second semester,' said Cheung Kie-chung, HKU associate professor and chairman of the engineering admissions committee.
'The recession also triggered more engineering applications because it remains a relatively stable industry. Engineers are generally assured of a good sustainable income regardless of the economy.'
Professor Cheung said civil engineering and logistics engineering were two of the most popular specialisations because they held the best job prospects.
As of last month, 1,564 students, applying through the Joint University Programmes Admissions System, placed the university's engineering course among their top three choices.
The bachelor of science programme, which underwent structural reform two years ago, is seeing a similar pattern. It has drawn 2,599 applications so far this year, the largest number for any course at the university. Students can now pick, at the end of their first year, one of the 15 majors on offer and have greater flexibility deciding on subjects for double majors and minors.
'The previous focus was narrower. Individuals were taught specific skills in a niche area, but a broader, more holistic science education is now available, making students more versatile,' said Allan Cheung, associate dean of HKU's faculty of science.
Baptist University's bachelor's in humanities, a liberal arts programme, has also attracted many students, becoming the institution's second most popular course after social work.
Its popularity is attributed to the wealth of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, cultural literacy and communication, students can acquire. 'With the world changing so quickly, students increasingly value the importance of these generic skills, which can be adapted to meet the needs of many industries,' said Stephen Chu, a professor at the faculty of arts.
Professional qualifications that guarantee job opportunities have also seen a boost in numbers. Nursing has emerged as a top contender at Polytechnic University (PolyU) and is also the second most popular course at Chinese University.
'We are likely to draw more applicants during an economic downturn as many are attracted to the stability of the profession. With 100 per cent employment for our graduates, 99 per cent of whom end up joining the profession, a job upon graduation is almost guaranteed,' said Carmen Chan, a professor at Chinese University's Nethersole School of Nursing. The school tracked a 20 per cent jump in applicant numbers following the Sars outbreak in 2003, as nursing captured the public's imagination.
'School leavers have a better understanding and appreciation for the nature of nursing. Unlike 20 years ago, students understand that a nurse is not just a doctor's assistant. They have an indispensable function in health care. They work as an integral member of the team and exercise clinical decision-making in the delivery of patient care,' explained Shirley Ching, programme leader for PolyU's full-time bachelor of science in nursing.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the accounting profession. Kevin Chen, chair professor and department head of accounting at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the popular BBA in professional accounting had maintained its momentum even amid the downturn. 'In this climate, students, more than anything else, value job security. The big four accounting firms are still hiring. They have not cut back on their graduate intake.'
The university's BBA in business administration attracted the most applications for any course, with 1,246 applicants placing the subject in their top three choices. But Angela Ng, associate dean and director of undergraduate programmes at the school of business and management, said the number was down 13 to 15 per cent from last year as a result of the financial crisis.
'Our programme has always been popular because Hong Kong is a finance centre. However, students this year are scared off by the financial tsunami and are thinking more about professional degrees,' Professor Ng said. 'I think this applies to all business courses in Hong Kong. Despite the slight dip, we still have a good pool of applicants.'