Hong Kong's target is to consolidate its status as a leading business and financial centre and to become a major arts and cultural hub in Asia-Pacific. Consequently the demand for talent in these fields, especially the arts, is high. Education providers are opening more courses to prepare professionals for the expertise required. HKU School of Professional and Continuing Education (SPACE) is developing more programmes for performing and creative arts this year. Enoch Young Chien-ming, director of SPACE, said through the government's quality migrant admission scheme the faculty had started hiring art masters from overseas to teach in Hong Kong. Virtuosi and soprano Rao Lan, a mainlander who was trained in Germany, has been hired. Rao is now SPACE's artist-in-residence and programme co-ordinator. She joined SPACE in July this year and conducted a master class last month. 'We are also talking to the Beijing Central Music Academy to bring in more art experts to provide top class training,' Professor Young said. The government's Continuing Education Fund (CEF) is expected to give more grants to applicants in the arts and creative industry. But business and finance have the lion's share of the HK$1.5billion worth of funds granted. Established in 2002 with an initial funding of HK$5billion, the CEF aims to encourage people to pursue continuing education to better equip themselves in an increasingly global and knowledge-based economy. At the end of August, 359,244 applications were approved, of which 25 per cent were related to finance services and 17 per cent to business services. Languages came next (35 per cent) followed by design (10 per cent) and logistics, tourism, creative industries and interpersonal skills for the workplace (13 per cent). The CEF recently extended the maximum age requirement from 60 to 65 and included Spanish and Korean language training as part of the courses that are covered by the funding scheme. Both new measures took effect last month. By the end of the year applicants can extend their claims from the original two-year duration to four years. The maximum amount which can be claimed is still HK$10,000. Most courses offered at HKU SPACE are covered by the funds so the popularity of its programmes reflects the fund allocation. HKU SPACE enrols an average of more than 100,000 part-time students a year. For finance courses alone, the enrolment rose from 7,000 in 2001 to more than 15,000 this year. Hundreds of new courses, including risk management, corporate governance and entrepreneurship, have been opened in response to market needs. There has also been a substantial increase in students in the tourism sector. Enrolment of full-time associate degree courses jumped from 2,500 students in 2001 to 6,200 this year. Professor Young said the success rate of students completing their studies was high. 'Most participants study part-time courses. In particular, they learn subjects that are related to their work. They are strongly motivated and wish to excel in their profession,' he said. 'There are also more participants taking courses unrelated to their profession. They study programmes to enhance their knowledge and personal qualities and hope to lead a better life.' An HKU SPACE biennial in-house survey found that 29 per cent of most learners pursued continuing education for personal interest compared with 23 per cent for work capabilities. This suggests a broader interest in lifelong learning than merely for economic benefits and this moves Hong Kong closer to a learning society. Professor Young said to develop Hong Kong as a learning and education hub to boost its competitiveness the government had introduced tax exemptions and established the CEF to encourage people to upgrade. But the survey found that only 9 per cent of employers had rendered sufficient support - both in sponsorship and time flexibility - to employees to achieve this. 'Most students pay school fees from their own pockets,' he said. He said the average Hong Kong person's full-time higher education rate was still far behind Singapore, South Korea and the mainland. 'If Hong Kong is to become an education centre much more must be done,' he said. Mark Coggins, president (Asia-Pacific) of Kaplan, said limited resources meant the government was unable to provide sufficient places and choices to many Hong Kong people interested in continuous education. 'We are here to plug the gap. We want the government to recognise our role and support us,' he said. Mr Coggins said universities did not cater for everybody. But a sound university system should provide a broad range of choices. 'Hong Kong's higher education industry should provide the same wide range as those offered in the United States and Britain, both in full-time and part-time [courses]. As one of the world's largest education providers, we are confident of doing this. We bring in an international prospective, stronger networking and professional foreign tutors,' Mr Coggins said, adding that he foresaw the eventual establishment of more private universities in Hong Kong. Kaplan, a global education provider, is known for its accountancy and financial professional exam training. The number of students taking part in the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA) exam through Kaplan has ballooned over the past few years from 600 to more than 2,000. At least 4,000 candidates attended Kaplan's preparation course for the exam. Mr Coggins attributed the increase to rising demand from the Big Four accountancy firms for professionals to cope with their business expansion in Hong Kong's robust economy. The ACCA's recent launch of a new exam syllabus also helped towards the significant growth. Similarly, the number of students taking part in Certified Public Accountant and Qualification Programme accountant examinations is also rising. Kaplan has also been arranging more Putonghua corporate training courses for the increasing number of employees in the service industry. This came after the government relaxed entry visa requirements for mainlanders visiting Hong Kong to boost the beleaguered economy after the 2003 Sars crisis.