It is rumoured that the government is planning to use the Queen's Hill site for public housing instead of developing a private university, as had been planned. Despite the urgency in easing the housing shortage, such a move would seriously damage the credentials of "Hong Kong Inc" and shake international investors' confidence in the city.
When the Education Bureau invited expressions of interest for the site in Fanling, nine local and overseas institutions replied. The bureau was expected to call for the submission of proposals early this year, and the interested institutions are busy with final preparations. To build public housing on the Queen's Hill site instead would represent an about-face and disappoint every bidding institution.
Even though the rumours may just be a tactic to gauge opinions on the project, the damage to the government's credentials in the education sector will have been done.
The 16.4-hectare site is believed by the government to be a readily useable large site that at the first whiff of a housing "crisis" could be simply sacrificed to provide around 16,500 public housing units and therefore a "quick public relations win".
The inference is that universities do not serve the greater public but only the rich; this is an erroneous thought and a politically naive and populist tactic. Switching plans for a private university with a proposal for public housing is neither reasonable nor desirable.
It is highly likely that the tuition fees of any new, non-publicly funded institution on the site (or anywhere else) will be higher than the universities funded by Hong Kong's University Grants Committee. Nevertheless, we should remember that university enrolment rates in Hong Kong are relatively low compared with other developed economies in Asia, such as Singapore and South Korea.
Our majority publicly funded tertiary education sector is not presently meeting demand or serving changing needs in tertiary education. The development of quality privately funded tertiary institutions can allow greater flexibility and give wider choices to every student, and ease the heavy burden on publicly funded institutions.
Furthermore, major investments of capital, time, manpower and reputation involve significant risks - risks that the self-financed institution will have to mitigate, with no guarantee of returns. This is not an elitist project, as some might perceive. Education is an investment that benefits the whole society. Thus, Hong Kong needs to advance the development of private tertiary education today, not bury it under a popularity contest.
Most importantly, switching the land use of the Queen's Hill site would damage the foundation of Hong Kong's regional success. Hong Kong is still ahead of major competitors in Asia due to its consistency in administration and safe investment status.
The Queen's Hill site, which was expected to come up for tender soon, is under the international spotlight. If the Hong Kong government were to terminate the process at the 11th hour, international investors would downgrade Hong Kong's credibility.
Advancing private university development on the Queen's Hill site should not only be viewed as an act to enhance the higher education sector in Hong Kong, but also the realisation of promises the Hong Kong government has made to every local citizen and international investor.
Business would be the first to agree that there are many contentious issues in the administration's portfolio, and housing is a big strategic issue. But, expanding Hong Kong's tertiary education sector delivers on a government pledge to upgrade our knowledge-based economy. Hong Kong's education future should never be sacrificed for the sake of more housing estates.
Timothy J. Peirson-Smith is managing director of Executive Counsel Limited, a business consultancy based in Hong Kong. He is also chairman of the Business Policy Unit of the British Chamber of Commerce, Hong Kong