BANKER TONY Cheung Kam-man has been something of a hermit this past year. He's turned down invitations to dinner parties and drinks with friends. Sometimes, he's even had to forego family activities on public holidays - all in pursuit of a master's degree. But whereas many professionals sign up for post-graduate programmes with a firm eye on career advancement, Cheung is motivated by passion. Rather than improve his expertise in business management or financial derivatives, the deputy chief executive of Macau-based Seng Heng Bank is studying cultural heritage management. 'I love art and culture. When I travel overseas, whether for business or leisure, museums, art exhibitions and auction houses are always on the itinerary,' he says. 'Even though I don't have the money to bid in an auction I enjoy viewing the art pieces.' There has been a marked rise in the number of professionals returning to school over the past decade. At Hong Kong University's School of Professional and Continuing Education (Space), for example, enrolments have almost doubled from 60,000 in 1996/97 to 110,000 last year, with 110 per cent and 150 per cent increases respectively in post-graduate and degree programmes. That's partly because local attitudes towards further studies have changed in the face of increasingly fierce competition in the job market, says Space director Enoch Young Chien-ming. 'In the past, people used to think an undergraduate degree would be enough for a lifetime career. But now they know that a first degree may not be enough to stay in the workforce in today's knowledge-based economy,' Young says. Many seek to broaden their horizons by pursuing professional training in other fields. Based on a poll of 1,505 people last year, Space estimates about 1.4 million people aged between 18 and 64 pursue studies after completing school - about 28 per cent of the labour force. That rate puts Hong Kong among the highest in Southeast Asia for continuing education, Young says, but some way behind nations in the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A 1998 international adult literacy survey put the OECD average at 40 per cent. Even so, the president of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management, Lai Kam-tong, says the drive to learn remains weak in Hong Kong. 'Hong Kong does not provide a good environment for continuing education. Most people work late, leaving little time and energy for further studies. Facilities such as public libraries don't open at night to facilitate working students,' says Lai. 'But we can't lay all the blame on employers and the government; many workers are too complacent and don't see the need to improve their knowledge and skills. 'Bear in mind that we're not only competing with ourselves, but also neighbouring countries. We need to update ourselves and broaden our knowledge to keep up with the changing world. 'For example, a human resources executive should master not only basic management skills, but have some understanding of employment contracts and labour-protection law,' Lai says. For working students such as Cheung, pursuing further education is a gruelling marathon. His two-year programme at the University of Hong Kong entails up to 20 hours of lectures and course work each week. 'Having no background in archaeology and cultural heritage, I have to double the time and effort to keep up with the course,' he says. Cheung has a packed diary as a senior bank executive, and must spend time at his Macau head office several times each week. Even so, he has never missed a class and unfailingly devotes his evenings and weekends to hitting the books and completing assignments. 'Split between work and school, my schedule is very tight,' he says. 'There's no time to waste, so taxi and ferry rides are often spent going over course notes.' Unlike Cheung, many adult students seek further qualifications as a way to keep their jobs amid widespread lay-offs in the post-1997 recession. Some even sign up for professional courses outside their specialisation to give themselves a career option in case there is a slump in their industry. 'From my experience, more people go back to school during an economic downturn and high unemployment,' says the director of Chinese University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Victor Lee Sze-kuen. 'During good times, most focus on making money instead.' A recent survey of students in Chinese University's continuing education programmes shows that less than one-third (31.8 per cent) sign up in search of personal satisfaction. The rest strive for higher qualifications (18.7 per cent), job promotion (20 per cent) or a career change (19 per cent). Thanks to an education system that favours elitism and stresses financial returns, few pursue knowledge for its own sake, says Mervyn Cheung Man-ping, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Continuing Education. There's little weight given to developing inquiring minds. 'It explains why professional and career-oriented programmes such as MBA, IT and professional qualification courses get more interest than art or cultural studies,' he says. 'Students are mostly told by their parents to seek high marks to ensure a place in university and better-earning jobs.' While careers are important, Hong Kong also needs people with broader views and knowledge to come up with innovative ideas. 'People brought up to study for careers tend to be narrowly focused, and driven more by self-interest. To make Hong Kong a better place, we need balanced views on many issues such as environmental and social considerations when making decisions, instead of just focusing on financial ones.' From a personal perspective, people with wider interests also tend to be happier than those driven by material values, Cheung says. But it's difficult to change the attitudes of parents, whose values are transferred to their children. 'When universities and schools hold talks for students, they usually highlight successful alumni in the business world. Can't they also cite those who have achievements in other aspects?' he asks. Yet business executives such as Ben Kwong Man-bun buck the predilection for pragmatic courses for more unusual learning - the chief operating officer of brokerage KGI Asia started a four-year doctoral programme in Buddhism at Hong Kong University last year. Kwong encountered some resistance. Friends and family questioned his choice, the Buddhist emphasis on achieving tranquillity seemingly at odds with the business world's stress on aggression. But the stockbroker says studying Buddhism helps him develop a clearer mind, enabling him to make better decisions at work and in his personal life. 'In Buddhism, we are trained to accept volatility in life. So our preparedness helps us stay calm and see things from a clearer and more rational perspective,' he says. 'The three pillars of Buddhism are discipline, concentration and wisdom. Study of the religion won't bring me business, but it can help change my mindset.' That's one way to think outside the box, he says.