The programme's popularity is borne out by the figures which have shown an increase from only 99 students in 1997 to almost 3,000 in 2007-08 A record 1,223 students graduated from the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) qualification programme this month. It was highest number in the institute's history and an indication that the programme is the preferred choice of accountancy graduates in Hong Kong, according to Winnie Cheung, chief executive and registrar of the HKICPA. Ms Cheung said that the continued demand for accountants on the back of economic growth and development in Hong Kong and China was spurring more university graduates to choose the accountancy qualification. 'The qualification programme brings our graduates international access and mobility as it is recognised by accounting bodies in many countries. In terms of the quality of the programme, we put strong emphasis on developing generic skills as well as practical and application expertise,' she said. Apart from examinations, the qualification programme requires that students attend workshops and complete an open book exam. Graduates start with self-study material for about 12 weeks, and must then attend the workshops organised by the HKICPA for each of the four modules in the qualification programme. Each module has four workshops led by facilitators who guide the students on case studies and presentations, which are marked towards their final result. Graduates must work for three years with an authorised employer before becoming certified public accountants. They can then either join an accounting firm or a major organisation as a trainee accountant. More than 1,000 employers are authorised under the HKICPA programme. Graduates can also obtain a credit transfer or subject exemptions from several master's degree programmes in Hong Kong universities, including the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, Polytechnic University, City University, Baptist University and Lingnan University. The HKICPA qualification programme was introduced in 1997 with an enrolment of 99 students. In 2006-07 the student intake was 2,364 and in 2007-08 it was 2,960. Ms Cheung said enrolments were forecast to increase by 16 per cent for the 2008-09 intake. Much of the growth will come from graduates of non-accounting disciplines. 'In the past few years, entry to the programme was restricted to accounting degree holders but employers are expanding and experimenting, and have been [hiring] non-accounting graduates [from] disciplines. They have been quite successful and we imagine that trend will continue,' she said. This year's HKICPA graduates are entering a job market that is experiencing an acute shortage of accountants. The Big Four firms together recruited more than 1,300 new graduates in Hong Kong this year and the demand is not anticipated to slow down, according to salary and employment forecasts. Recruitment firm Michael Page, for example, is forecasting 2008-09 salary increases of 10 to 15 per cent for accountants changing jobs. For senior accounting professionals with specialist skills a 20 per cent or higher increment is likely. 'Despite the recent downturn and bad news about the financial services sector overseas, China's economic development is continuing so, as far as the Hong Kong accountancy sector is concerned, the outlook is still very good,' Ms Cheung said.