With the radical changes in Hong Kong's political environment over the past 10 years come rising demand for public sector and non-governmental organisations' (NGOs) managers to be more accountable and responsive to social needs and voices of the community.
As a result, advanced training in public affairs and related policies have become increasingly popular for aspiring young managers and senior policymakers to enhance their public administration knowledge.
Launched in 1978 as the first of its kind in Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) master of public administration (MPA) programme has always been the preferred postgraduate degree for mid-career professionals, especially those in the government, to reinforce their capability in the management of public affairs.
Danny Lam Wai-fung, associate professor and head of HKU's Department of Politics and Public Administration, said the MPA programme's contents were changing to meet the needs of the time, particularly in view of the political changes over the past decade.
Hong Kong's political environment had become more complicated after 1997 and many public sectors and NGO managers were looking for new insights and knowledge to help them take on the challenges, he said.
The 1997 handover had given rise to growing demand for knowledge and understanding of the public policy and administration in the mainland, he said.
'We have taken the initiative to organise a summer course every year in partnership with Tsinghua University, allowing our students to spend two or three weeks in the mainland to experience and learn about the country and its public administration,' he said.
'Studying an MBA is popular in the mainland and Tsinghua University is strong in this respect. Our MPA students will be able to meet and interact with that university's MBA students through channels such as conferences and Outward Bound activities. This is a good learning and training opportunity.'
Dr Lam said public administration should not be seen as something that could be acquired through learning by doing. It was a professional subject that combined practical training of problem-solving skills and analytical training of theories of public affairs.
With the globalised market environment, the MPA programme also brought in top academics from around the world to give guest lectures and share their insights with students, he said. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the MPA programme.
For more than 20 years, however, the programme had been a training service for government officers under the Civil Service Training and Development Institute.
Civil servants taking the programme were given a day off every week for classes at the HKU campus and the government paid for the cost of their studies.
There was a policy change after 2001 as the government encouraged lifelong learning among the civil service and resolved that civil servants should be responsible for the cost of learning themselves.
They are required to pursue continuous learning after office hours and, as a result, the MPA programme had to be restructured into weekday evening and weekend classes so that students need not take leave from work.
The MPA is offered on a two-year part-time or one-year full-time basis. It takes in about 35 to 45 students each year and they are required to complete eight taught courses and one dissertation to graduate.
Dr Lam said the department had put a strong emphasis on the quality of the MPA intake and made every effort to ensure a diversity of students from different fields through a stringent screening process.
'We would like to have a healthy mix of students from different backgrounds. In addition to academic performance we are taking in people with management experience,' he said.
'Our programme is not just knowledge learning. It requires a lot of interaction, debate and discussions among students. We help students think and explore various things from a new perspective.'
While engaging the civil society was an important subject in public administration, Dr Lam said there was an increasing interest from managers of NGOs keen to enrol in the MPA programme.
To meet the growing demand, the department was studying plans to set up an NGO management stream in the MPA curriculum.
Apart from theories and principles of public administration, the MPA students are also given the opportunity to pick up practical skills through management workshops taught by former senior civil servants.
Peter Lai Hing-ling, a former secretary for security, was one of the retired civil servants helping the MPA programme.
Dr Lam said management workshops were organised with the support of former senior civil servants to help students learn about practical skills such as how to deal with crises and face the media.
The department was also considering launching a doctorate of public administration programme for MPA graduates to pursue further studies, he said.
The Master of Public Administration Alumni Association was established in 2005 to strengthen the ties among teaching staff and graduates of the MPA programme.