This year could be an ideal time to embark on a postgraduate degree, and local universities are already witnessing a dramatic rise in the number of people applying for courses. With the world on the brink of a recession and corporations putting their expansion plans on hold, the number of people enrolling on postgraduate programmes is expected to accelerate over the next 12 months. It is widely believed that employees, eager to make the most of a sluggish market, will be keen to sharpen skills and upgrade their qualifications. 'Historically, more people gravitate towards further education whenever there is an economic downturn,' explained Steven DeKrey, senior associate dean at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's (HKUST) business school. Since the summer, inquiries for HKUST's full-time MBA programme had jumped 30 to 40 per cent compared with the same period a year earlier, said Professor DeKrey, adding this was the biggest surge in the number of MBA inquiries he had seen at the school in the past decade. While professors across the board agree it is too early to say how large the increase in the number of postgraduate applicants will be, they are certainly expecting a sizeable jump. 'I wouldn't be surprised if the number of applications for our courses doubled this year as people are increasingly looking at how they can upgrade themselves so that they can be more ready for the economic recovery,' said Lee Chack-fan, director of Hong Kong University's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU SPACE), one of the city's biggest providers of postgraduate and continuous learning courses. Each year about 110,000 students take courses offered by the school. 'There is a deep-rooted tradition of lifelong learning in Hong Kong. People are hard working. They like to constantly upgrade their qualifications by additionally studying on their own,' Professor Lee said. A survey conducted by the school in March and April last year found individuals' expenditure on continuing education had surged 20 per cent to reach HK$14.1 billion in the 2007/2008 academic year, from HK$11.7 billion in 2005. Individuals primarily pursued continuous education for personal interest, improvement in work capabilities and the opportunity to learn new skills, the survey found. The expected growth in numbers of people taking postgraduate courses is also reflected in the decision to take an MBA. 'They are eager to step up their credentials so that they can be better prepared when the recession is over,' Professor DeKrey said. Although a postgraduate qualification will add more letters after your name, it may be worthless if not chosen properly and in the context of a broader career plan. 'The decision to take a postgraduate qualification needs to be led by your career in terms of who you are and where you want to be. After you determine these things, you can then go about finding schools and courses that can prepare you for your goal,' Professor DeKrey said. Regarding the suitability of a programme, individuals also needed to assess how they could best capitalise on timely trends specific to their industry, Professor Lee said. For example, architects may want to consider a programme in environmental planning given the focus on environmental sustainability, finance professionals are gravitating towards courses in Islamic banking and finance given the booming and resilient financial markets of the Middle East, while accountants may study how to conduct business on the mainland as this may prepare them well for the burgeoning number of projects there. Responding to the challenges of the business environment is equally crucial if executives are to remain attractive to future employers and relevant to their corporations. Amid the financial uncertainty, one of the most popular courses to have emerged at HKU SPACE has been an executive certificate in financial risk management, designed to provide students with a good understanding of techniques and to equip them with the necessary knowledge to conduct independent analysis. 'There are two ways students can get value from a postgraduate qualification,' said Howard Davies, associate dean at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's faculty of business. 'The first lies intrinsically in the value of the qualification itself and the knowledge and skills they gain from it. 'The second is more of a signalling effect. By spending time, money and effort on the qualification, it shows employers how hard working and committed an individual is to their long-term career development.' For a professional services firm, such as Deloitte Hong Kong which takes a multidisciplinary approach to servicing its clients, employees with several competencies and potential, and those who focus on continuous learning and improvement, do stand out from the crowd. 'People with postgraduate qualifications are more likely to be assigned a critical project or to lead teams and manage tasks because they typically exhibit quicker and deeper thinking and better management of people,' said July Kong, director of human resources at Deloitte Hong Kong. 'As a result, they will more likely be offered opportunities to move up the career ladder and stand a better chance of promotion.'