GIVEN ITS LACK of a track record in art-related education, the Hong Kong Baptist University's decision to open the city's first Academy of Visual Arts in September is a leap into the unknown. After all, the university has never offered a fine arts degree and can count only a medium-sized, minimally equipped classroom as the core of its art-related facilities. So, decision-makers at the university are playing up the potential of the refurnished buildings of the 3,500sqft former Royal Air Force officers' mess at Kowloon Bay. The site will house the academy until it moves into its on- campus home, a new building it will share with the School of Communication when it's finished in 2008. 'Its high ceilings, spacious rooms, scenic views and surroundings are very suitable for creative work and teaching of visual arts,' says Professor Chung Ling, the university's dean of arts, in a press release celebrating the government agreeing to lease the historic site to the academy. For the university, which boasts an established Electro-acoustic Music Centre complete with state of the art studios, the academy is a challenging step forward. Offering courses ranging from the traditionally artisan (paintings, ceramics, even glasswork) to cutting-edge entrepreneurial (design for exhibitions and events, digital photo-imaging), the academy is eager to present itself as the embodiment of the varying aspects of contemporary visual arts. Chung says the university is just following 'a government direction' in providing tertiary-level visual arts training 'in order to nurture more creative talents for the development of creative industries'. These industries include design, packaging, image building and advertising. For the 40 students (out of 570 applications) who will start classes at the academy in September, the degree in visual arts will be a primer touching on the divergent fundamentals of the field. Students are to be trained in the technical skills of drawing, sculpture and installation art. Chung is confident graduates will be able to navigate the job market with their career- oriented credentials. 'There will be more openings for designers, photographers and especially exhibit designers - galleries and commercial expositions, for example,' she says. Given how the course framework resembles vocational training as much as art in the more traditional sense, Chung says the academy's curriculum moves beyond the ones offered by fine arts departments at the Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong, which she says are strong in studio arts and art history, respectively. Her views illustrate how career opportunities are now important - if not paramount - in how university education is shaped. With Hong Kong - and neighbours such as Singapore or Taiwan - eagerly seeking a reinvention after the economic slowdown of the past few years, an entrepreneurial spirit is deemed a necessity for students from all disciplines. The advent of creative industries has big business potential - as shown in how design, arts and music now make up 8 per cent of Britain's GDP, or how post-industrial cities such as Manchester or Bilbao were rejuvenated with a mix of museums, multi-media events and music. The way universities are made to account for their budgets has also alerted school administrators to the career opportunities of every subject being offered. 'The programme intends to use fine arts as a foundation, so that students can have a solid training in fine arts while gaining an ability to make a professional career out of it,' says Choi Yan-chi, one of the full-time lecturers at the new academy and chairwoman of the alternative arts collective 1aspace. A veteran curator and artist in Hong Kong who has braved the public indifference and professional insecurities that benchmarked art practitioners in the 1980s, Choi says the artistic landscape has transformed beyond recognition. While applied arts have kept many an artist at work in the past, it's now more lucrative. 'How art is created and executed is very different these days - and so is the society that will welcome the students when they eventually graduate,' she says. Choi points to the wealth of opportunities and prestige being accorded to designers, architects and artists in light of the West Kowloon Cultural District developments and the proliferation of bookshops and studios. The Baptist University harbours great hopes for the new academy. There are plans to increase the student population to 400 in the next few years. Such ambitions beg the question: Can Hong Kong absorb so many artists? The key is to look north, according to Professor Matthew Turner, director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre's Art School. 'We don't expect simply to provide graduates who fit local demands and initiatives,' he says. 'I imagine students will end up across China - or indeed in the region: there are biennales and triennales in Guangzhou, Singapore, Beijing, Chongqing, Taipei or Tainchung. It's a large picture.' The Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 offer another opening. 'The organisers may look for designers and artists to make the Games look better,' says Josephine Jim Sau-ha, the Art School's registrar. There are, indeed, gaps waiting to be filled. Fields such as arts management - learning how to devise strategies for museums, performing arts companies and even the 'cultural branding' of cities themselves - don't feature at all among the eight University Grants Commission-funded institutions. The Arts Centre's Art School is the only institution that holds academically accredited courses in this field, offering professional certificates for visuals art management and curatorship. 'Several students wanted to give up well-paid professional jobs to become curators, and we're going, 'Oh dear, remember the day job',' says Turner. Admittedly, most of the students who enrol in this programme are adults, but even students as young as 16 are coming to regard art as a feasible career rather than just a diversion before the hunt for a desk job begins. 'I think the reputation of phrases like 'creative industries' is better for youngsters these days,' says Turner. 'Parents used to say, 'Don't be stupid, you're going to do law, medicine or accounting - something solid'. Now, the language gives them currency in talking to their parents. They can say, 'This is what the government has been talking about, the creative industries, and it's important', and they can use it to their advantage. 'Maybe this is nothing to do with Disneyland or West Kowloon, but it gives them a way to articulate their real aspirations - and I think that's important. We've never had that legitimately sanctioned discourse before.'