Hong Kong's shortage of university places could turn into a glut in three years as student numbers fall and competition from private institutions increases.
In the 2013-2014 academic year there will be 22,000 places available at public and private universities for the 27,000 secondary school pupils likely to meet the minimum entry requirement to study for a degree.
But this situation is expected to reverse by 2016 and universities need to consolidate, according to the Education Bureau.
Education-sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said that meant the government's ambitious efforts in recent years to expand tertiary education might mean institutions that had misplanned their expansion having to close.
Michelle Li, the bureau's deputy secretary for higher education, said there would be an estimated 23,200 university places for the 22,000 students expected to meet entry requirements in 2016.
The number of Form Six students is forecast to drop from 71,700 this year to 59,400 in three years, and to 45,100 in 2022.
Li said the sector should not see filling up places as its main roles, so enrolments should drop.
Critics blame the problem on poor forecasts of population size - including permanent residents and expatriate workers. They say such figures are key to the planning and retention of talent.
The abundance of higher education places has also spurred concerns about graduates' attractiveness to employers.
"This is clearly [due to a] lack of planning," Ip said. The government must ensure that students' interests would not be compromised by college closures and that the quality of degrees would be maintained, he said.
The bureau's estimates do not include overseas students and adult learners.
Also yesterday, a set of guidelines - aimed at improving the governance of private tertiary institutions, some of which have been accused of over-enrolment - were published.
The bureau says it will introduce measures to stop them accepting students who are weak academically but strong in other aspects.
They will also have to seek approval for their enrolment ceilings, but the bureau did not specify a cap on enrolment for individual colleges, saying they would depend on their capacity and teacher numbers.
While most local university places are funded by the government, tens of thousands are offered by the private sector, including for degree courses.