Hong Kong is considering easing an old rule that bars mainland students from entering a full-time programme with an overseas institution while in the city.
The change would be part of an effort to establish Hong Kong as a regional education hub.
The possibility of allowing foreign universities to tap the mainland market in Hong Kong was discussed during a July meeting between Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim and Ministry of Education officials in Beijing, a government source said.
"Overseas institutions would like Hong Kong to be more flexible," the source said.
But critics say the government should first improve its governance of private providers of further education, whether they are local or overseas players.
Easing the rule would require changes to immigration regulations on both sides. An Education Bureau spokeswoman said yesterday that mainland and Hong Kong authorities would continue to discuss how feasible such a change was, without giving a time frame.
Under the long-standing rule on student visas, Hong Kong does not allow mainlanders to get a tertiary education from a foreign-run provider unless it has a local partner. The restriction does not apply to other non-local students.
Overseas institutions offer 1,200 tertiary courses in Hong Kong and enrol thousands of students every year.
The Education Commission suggested last year that the rule be relaxed in order to develop the industry.
But Civic Party lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said this was bad timing.
"We should first review the overall provision of higher education," he said, referring to recent reports that some centres of further education had over-enrolled their subdegree courses.
Subdegrees, which include associate degrees and higher diplomas, are read by students who graduate from secondary school without qualifying for degree programmes at universities.
Principal Chan Cheuk-hay, of higher-diploma education provider Hong Kong College of Technology, said the government should seek better mainland recognition of the city's subdegree programmes, which were run by local institutions.
"The needs of local education providers should first be catered to properly" before helping overseas institutions, he said.
As of last year, only 500 subdegree students were non-locals, accounting for just 1 per cent of tertiary students.
Education-sector legislator Ip Kin-yuen said a quota must be in place in order to prevent mainlanders from taking up too many resources at institutions.