Any postgraduate research project can lead to new and unexpected areas. The subject and ostensible goal may be relatively clear but, as students delve deeper into their topic, they will almost inevitably find a need to branch off in unforeseen directions or follow up on related themes to satisfy their curiosity and add substance to their work. Recognising that, the seven University Grants Committee-funded universities in Hong Kong are collaborating on a cross-institutional course enrolment scheme for postgraduate research students. The Heads of Universities Committee discussed the idea in 2003, implementing it in the subsequent academic year. Since then, the number of applicants has risen steadily, with 269 students taking advantage of the programme in 2007-2008, involving many faculties and disciplines. 'The course-sharing scheme provides for greater synergy among tertiary institutions in better use of academic resources,' said Roland Chin Tai-hong, vice-president for academic affairs at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 'In addition, it enhances the students' professional networking and exposes them to a greater variety of learning environments.' Overall responsibility for co-ordination rotates between the universities. The Graduate School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is in the final year of its three-year stint and has given unreserved support to the concept of creating opportunities and allowing access to courses and expertise at sister institutions in Hong Kong. All faculties can participate at a practical level and they are invited to list courses they want to offer under this scheme on a voluntary basis. The prime intention is to enhance collaboration between local research programmes but, in the longer term, it will also enable the universities to plan courses more effectively and augment choices for postgraduates. YV Hui, associate dean of Chow Yei Ching School of Graduate Studies at City University, said: 'The scheme aims to enlarge the pool of courses for selection and allows students to gain access to other institutions' expertise.' Students are taking courses offered by other universities, so there are no additional tuition fees or significant extra costs. The administrative procedures are straightforward and, while there may be minor discrepancies between some of the participating schools, all schools stick to the same basic formula. This entails a joint application form endorsed by a supervisor and perhaps by an appropriate internal committee. Certain faculties may also ask for transcripts or evidence of certain skills, and the teachers overseeing a course might want to arrange a short meeting/interview in advance. Students should only apply if no equivalent course is offered at their own university. There is, though, nothing to stop them enrolling for more than one external programme. Depending on the institution, there may be more detailed stipulations. For example, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) Graduate School states that the number of courses taken at other universities should not exceed 50 per cent of the total course requirement. Furthermore, while the results of exams taken externally will be included on the official HKU transcript, they will be shown as a pass or fail, even if the other university has given a specific grade. As a host institution, HKU also makes it clear that visiting students are not in for a free ride. They are expected to participate fully in coursework and examinations, and acceptance is subject to the availability of places, quotas and 'other pertinent factors'. 'The scheme has established a structural linkage to facilitate credit transfer,' Professor Hui said. '[It is helping] to capitalise on the resources available in each institution, at the same time enhancing the overall quality of research degree education in Hong Kong.' He said courses offered by CityU in business, humanities, social sciences and engineering had attracted the most interest from external postgraduates. He is also encouraged by the fact that the number of applications is maintaining a clear upward trend, confirming the success of the scheme and indicating the likelihood of more courses being added.