There was a quote among my co-workers during my days as an office worker in Canada: life begins after 4.30.
At 4.30pm sharp on every working day, people would quit work, go home and do whatever they enjoyed doing for leisure: gardening, golfing, chatting with friends over beer and so on. I was told that things are not too different between Canada, Europe, Australia or other Western countries.
Well, when I look at my local students who have graduated and joined the workforce in Hong Kong in recent years, this quote seems to be something beyond the imagination or reach of most.
Many of them seem to be routinely staying in their offices until 8pm, sometimes until 9 or 10pm. Even after they have returned home, they might still have to respond to e-mails using their iPads or home computers.
Work pressure is high and competition is always keen. To earn a decent wage and to get promotions, one often has to work like a dog. There is also a distinct need to constantly upgrade one's skills and qualifications so as to stay competitive.
This explains why we have so many people studying after work. At the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education, we have tens of thousands of adult learners doing different kinds of study annually.
Likewise, you can see huge crowds of adult learners emerging from Polytechnic University or City University every evening at around 9.30pm.
We have to salute Hongkongers for always working hard and for always trying to upgrade themselves through continuing education. This simply does not happen in many countries, including Western ones.
A big reason for this is that we in Hong Kong do not have much in the way of resources, other than our human capital. For instance, we have neither petroleum nor mineral resources. We depend on others even for the bulk of our water supply. We have a service economy, which means we earn our living by providing services to others. In most cases, we need special skills and knowledge to provide such services - legal, architectural or medical services, for instance.
These skills and knowledge can be acquired through university studies and professional education programmes. Typically, undergraduate studies provide the basic framework and theories, while professional education programmes offer the necessary professional qualifications to practise as a professional.
I also notice that in recent years we have a growing number of graduates working on mainland projects of one kind or another. For example, many local architecture graduates become involved in the design of buildings in various mainland cities. They do not relocate to the mainland as such, but they do have to make frequent trips there. In this regard, they have found some basic knowledge of the mainland to be helpful in their jobs.
Often, students with some summer training experience in China (for example, our civil engineering students who spent a summer at the Three Gorges Dam construction site) tend to have better luck in finding jobs upon graduation. This should perhaps be included for consideration in our debate on the need for some form of national education for our youngsters.
Professor Lee Chack-fan is the director of the HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education