Changes in Hong Kong's education sector have prompted teachers to return to the classroom in growing numbers. Educators are taking master's programmes in a bid to strengthen their area of expertise and attain a better understanding of technical and academic theories. 'Curriculum reforms and the elevation of teaching qualifications for the profession have made it hard for teachers to think about promotion without an advanced degree,' said Leslie Lo Nai-kwai, a professor at Chinese University's faculty of education and director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research. With more teachers now armed with a bachelor's degree and a postgraduate diploma in education, further academic qualifications have become a way in which to distinguish themselves. 'Teachers are increasingly seeing postgraduate education as a way of professional development and are making use of the opportunity to sharpen their skills and other areas of competence that will help them meet the demands of their careers,' said Vicky Tam, an assistant professor at Baptist University's department of education studies. One of the most popular master's degrees is the master of education; an academic degree that focuses on the integration of both theory and practice, and the development of critical and analytical thinking. 'Anyone who is looking to acquire simple theory will find the programme too theoretical and anyone wanting pure theory will find us too practical. The course prepares people to work in their roles effectively,' Professor Lo said. Its appeal lies in its flexibility - students can specialise or opt for the general stream. For example, the University of Hong Kong's (HKU) faculty of education offers specialist strands in areas such as Chinese language education, educational administration and management, e-learning, English language education, inclusive and special education and liberal studies. Those who want to improve their general education knowledge and skills can choose the generalist educational studies option. This allows individuals to tailor-make a course of study, according to their own interests, and without having to narrow the focus of study. 'The master of education offers greater flexibility,' Professor Lo said. 'It is the type of programme that gives generic anchoring and provides a general elevation in terms of qualification.' A graduate of the HKU's master of education programme, Kwok Ho-ting, now a chief school development officer at the Education Bureau for Sai Kung, said the course dramatically accelerated his growth and development. 'It was particularly helpful for my job as the course used concrete examples of situations and case studies that I encounter daily,' he said. 'It enriches you.' Though the majority of graduates work in the education sector, the programme's reach is broad, drawing others such as senior civil servants who have a commitment to education. Prominent graduates from Chinese University have included both young teachers, who wanted to get ahead in their jobs, and community leaders such as Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, formerly the permanent secretary, Education and Manpower Bureau, Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching, the commissioner for Labour, and Lester Huang, president of the Law Society. Diversity in terms of industry backgrounds and nationality was also important because there was plenty of group discussion, said Ng Ho-ming, director of HKU's master of education programme. By relaxing its application requirement last year to a recognised bachelor's degree, from the earlier expectation of a bachelor's degree and a postgraduate diploma in education and two years of teaching experience, HKU hopes to attract a wider spectrum of candidates and nurture greater diversity in the classroom. 'We have a broader sense of education. It is not only confined to school education. The course can apply to parents who want to learn more about what education is, to university teachers who want to get into pedagogical and curriculum issues, or board members of schools who want a better understanding of how education works,' said Allan Yuen, the faculty of education's associate dean (learning and teaching) at HKU. Rather than focusing exclusively on acquiring knowledge and skills, HKU's course aims to develop the individual at a holistic level. 'We train students to become independent critical thinkers who look at issues from both an academic and critical manner rather than focusing only on the implementation side,' Dr Ng said. 'We empower our graduates to be better decision makers so that they can do their jobs better. 'The programme enables graduates to be more reflective. As teachers, they come to have a better understanding of what's good, and can come up with their own ideas to improve the school system in Hong Kong.' This goal is achieved through emphasis on research. Students are required to undertake either a dissertation, accounting for about 37.5 per cent of the curriculum time, or a shorter research project. Both contribute to independent thinking and problem-solving capabilities.