HK$400m bill fails to derail university bidder

Government reveals private college bidders face infrastructure costs of HK$400 million amid claims it would now rather use land for housing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 10:10am

A Catholic group insisted it would press ahead with its bid to build a private university in Fanling as the government warned that basic infrastructure alone could cost HK$400 million.

The potential costs were revealed amid suggestions the government would prefer to ditch its plan to allocate land at Queen's Hill for a private university and build more housing instead.

A spokeswoman for the preparation task force of the Jesuit University Hong Kong said: "We will not withdraw and we are willing to pay for the infrastructure."

Reports that the government would rather reserve the 16-hectare former military camp for building flats began to emerge last month.

The threat of a U-turn in the middle of an expression of interest exercise that began in 2011 led some lawmakers to warn it would hurt the city's image as a centre of excellence for education.

A source familiar with the situation said yesterday that the government was now unlikely to scrap the tendering process after nine proposals for universities had already been examined by the Education Bureau.

However, the source added, the government had expected that the universities would withdraw their bids after it revealed the high cost of infrastructure, covering roads and utilities.

"The government would consider giving the site a new use if the tenders fail, including reallocating it for housing development," the source said.

The HK$400 million figure, as estimated by the government, came to light yesterday following an apparent request by one potential bidder for public funds to subsidise development by providing the infrastructure. The request was declined.

The Jesuits announced last year that it wanted to open a liberal arts college - which generally covers subjects such as literature, philosophy and science - with an annual tuition fee of HK$250,000.

Britain's Aberdeen University, led by former Hong Kong governor Lord David Wilson, had also been regarded as a top bidder. But the university informed the Post that it would not be bidding, without specifying a reason.

An Education Bureau spokeswoman said they were still considering the development specifications based on the proposals received. "The government remains committed to promoting quality post-secondary and higher education," she added.

She did not say when the tender, originally scheduled for 2010, would be finalised.

New People's Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said it would be hard for private universities to make a success of the site without financial assistance.

She urged the government to improve infrastructure at public universities, including adding more residency halls, instead of giving out land to private universities. "The government owes us a lot of answers. What is the objective of encouraging the setting up of private universities? What would be the business model? Where is the demand? I think it has not thought this through."

The total area on Queen's Hill covers 25 hectares, which some surveyors estimate could provide over 2,600 private flats or over 10,000 public flats. Former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen designated 16 hectares for a university, and reserved five other sites for similar developments.