Law plea to help universities win private status

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

The outgoing president of Baptist University says the government should enact a law for the establishment of private universities and speed up the process of granting institutions the status as part of the push to turn education into one of the six 'pillar' industries.

Professor Ng Ching-fai made the call before his nine-year tenure ends at the end of June.

With Polytechnic University planning to establish a campus in Dongguan and Chinese University planning one in Shenzhen, he also appealed to the central government to loosen restrictions limiting the provision of education by local universities on the mainland.

Local universities currently have to offer classes in collaboration with mainland universities, and money *from Hong Kong's coffers cannot be used to develop programmes on the mainland.

Under Ng's leadership, Baptist University has been a trailblazer in collaborating with mainland institutions to offer degree programmes.

Set up jointly with Beijing Normal University in 2005, United International College (UIC) in Zhuhai is the first institution to offer Hong Kong-style degree programmes. He said the restrictions preclude local universities from conducting large-scale expansion.

'If you can do it [offer programmes] on your own, there will be more freedom. Although they [the mainland institutions] can sometimes help us solve problems, we still prefer to do it on our own,' said Ng, who will take up the reins of UIC in August.

Since the government identified education as one of six pillar industries for the city last year, it has set aside six pieces of land to establish self-financed private universities.

The continuing education arms of University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University are raring to break away from their mother institutions to become private universities. Ng says he does not understand why.

'If you break away, you have to be on your own. The cost of running a decent university, such as employment of staff and teaching faculties, the construction of facilities, is huge. Private universities do not enjoy the injection of public funds like the UGC-funded universities. Running on a self-financed mode, they can't compete with the publicly-funded ones.'

Prestigious private universities in the US enjoy big endowments, corporate donations and generous federal grants. Ng said it would be difficult, if not impossible, for private universities to survive on mostly tuition fees.

'With the exception of Hang Seng School of Commerce [which is also fighting to become a private university] which has the backing of a bank, Hong Kong private universities can only rely on tuition fees.

'The public funding is not even enough for the eight UGC-funded institutions.

'There is no way for private universities to get a slice of the public funding pie.'

In spite of the shortage of public funding, Ng said one way forward for private universities would be to develop practical subjects like tourism that do not clash with those offered by the publicly-funded universities.

The city's only private university, Shue Yan University, won its status in 2006 after a two-decade struggle.

At present, there is no law governing the establishment of private universities.

Ng said the government should set up an ordinance specifying rules for their establishment and speed up the procedures for an institution to attain the status.

'Twenty years is too long a time [to wait for a university title],' he said.