Lifelong learning is continuing to grow in response to an increasingly competitive job market AS THE FEDERATION for Continuing Education in Tertiary Institutions (FCE) celebrates its 10th anniversary, lifelong learning has taken centre stage - not only in Hong Kong but around the world. 'As Hong Kong is moving towards a knowledge-based society, continuing education will help strengthen its position as an international world-class city, a finance centre, and to reinforce the role of Hong Kong as a bridge between China and the world,' FCE chairman and University of Hong Kong professor Enoch Young said. 'Continuing education is a way for Hong Kong to stay competitive in the Pearl River Delta region and globally,' he said. 'Continuing education has become a global trend with a knowledge explosion worldwide. It is necessary for everyone to stay ahead by acquiring new knowledge.' Interest in returning to the classroom has grown substantially over the past decade. Tourism, logistics and language are just three areas that have been experiencing strong enrolment growth in recent years. The reasons for furthering one's studies are many. One of the foremost is a desire to stay ahead of the pack in an increasingly competitive job market. It almost goes without saying that employers look most favourably on students who demonstrate a commitment to bettering themselves by enrolling in lifelong learning programmes. 'Employers are usually more willing to hire prospective employees who pursue further study, and more qualifications will ultimately mean enhancement in promotional opportunities nowadays,' Professor Young said. The FCE was established in 1994 by HKU, the City University of Hong Kong, Caritas-Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Baptist University, the Open University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University. The Chinese University, Polytechnic University, the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and the Vocational Training Council joined in 1997. With the admission of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2001, there are now 11 members. They are the continuing and professional education (CPE) units of the eight local universities and three other major providers of CPE programmes in Hong Kong. The number of students enrolled in FCE institutions had reached 314,162 by the 2002/2003 academic year, representing a full-time equivalent of 57,617 students. As a self-funded, non-profit organisation, the FCE seeks to promote lifelong learning opportunities. In addition to developing an interest in continuing and professional education (CPE) within the community, it seeks to enhance and upgrade skills and professionalism, create a platform for communication with government, industry, professional bodies and other stakeholders, respond to the government's policy initiatives towards lifelong education, and co-ordinate and represent the general interest of member institutions in providing CPE in Hong Kong. Member institutions have been making every effort to try to facilitate the implementation of the Continuing Education Fund (CEF), which was introduced by the government in 2002, with the aim of providing financial support to adult students of continuing education programmes to train people working in key industry sectors. By the end of September, 130,078 applications had been approved, including 73,467 at FCE institutions and 56,611 at institutions not participating in the body. FCE institutions are offering 80 per cent of the 3,421 CEF reimbursable courses. Another government initiative to expand opportunities for post-secondary and tertiary education in Hong Kong was the introduction of associate degree programmes at member institutions in 2000. Associate degrees have become widely recognised qualifications in Hong Kong. Together with the higher diploma programmes also offered by member institutions, they have become an integral segment in the current tertiary education system. Continuing education is offered by both local and overseas course providers in Hong Kong. As of August last year, FCE members were offering a total of 495 non-local courses, representing 56 per cent of all of the exempted and registered non-local courses listed by the Education and Manpower Bureau. But this shouldn't be looked upon as competition. 'In the context of providing lifelong education, 'collaboration' instead of 'competition' should be the order of the day,' Professor Young said. 'Take HKU Space as an example. We have had 48 years of providing high-quality programmes in continuing education and have been collaborating with prestigious universities from overseas and mainland China. As a member of the FCE with 48 years of history, we have witnessed a steady growth in continuing education throughout the years, especially in full-time programmes.' Looking to the future, the FCE will continue to develop continuing education by increasing the number of associate degree programmes, expanding its involvement in the CEF by offering as many courses as possible - especially those that are reimbursable - and by assisting the government within the establishment of its quality framework.