University funding chiefs for the second time have rejected an effort to establish the city's first publicly financed veterinarian school and say that without a change in government policy they will not consider it again.
City University had overestimated local demand for vets and underestimated the cost of running the school, the University Grants Committee (UGC) said. The "unanimous" decision was made at a meeting on Friday that discussed the application and a report by an expert task force that assessed it.
"[If] there are no changes in government policies relating to the veterinary sector [the committee] will not examine any proposal … to seek funding again," the committee said.
Chairman Edward Cheng Wai-sun urged the Kowloon university to proceed with caution if it went ahead with a six-year, self-financed undergraduate vet-training programme, saying the committee could monitor whether this was affecting the institution's other programmes.
City University said it would set up its vet school in September with a postgraduate programme that did not require government funding and try again for an undergraduate programme in two to four years.
Dr Howard Wong Kai-hay, executive director of the university's life sciences programmes, said he believed government policies would change in time.
The committee said veterinary medicine was not a government priority in determining publicly funded university places.
There are 690 registered vets in Hong Kong but only about 70 per cent practise locally.
The seven-member task force, set up last year and comprising local and overseas experts, said this was enough.
It gave a pets-to-vet ratio of about 1,200:1 - much better than others, such as Singapore's, which is 2,500:1. As the growth of demand for vets in animal-related industries had been small, it was unlikely that the 50 undergraduates a year as proposed by CityU would be needed, it said.
Task force convenor Roland Chin Tai-hong said the university might have underestimated the cost of running a vet school.
"For example, the university's business plan stated that the small animals clinic would earn money and be self-financing but according to overseas experts, such a clinic won't be able to do so," Chin said.
He also said CityU's biomedical and life sciences research was not strong enough to support the development of such a school.
The report concluded that the ideal vet school for the city would be one dominated by postgraduate and research work with a small training programme.
Cheng said that if the university tried to introduce a six-year, self-financed undergraduate programme that was too big "we would remind the council and the senior management of the university to be cautious about its finance arrangements and the quality of the programme".
The committee "is able to monitor [the university's finance] under current mechanisms" to ensure the quality of other publicly funded programmes would not be affected.
The university said its new school would start with 10 to 20 students and focus on research on infectious diseases and food safety instead of training vets.
Wong, a government vet, said he hoped the programme would build up its life sciences research capacity and prove that the university could run a large-scale vet school.
"We're quite happy that the report agrees that Hong Kong needs a vet school," Wong said.
He said the city needed more vets as the government and clinics had difficulty recruiting them.
On costs, Wong hoped for talks with the grants committee to find out which part of its estimates were seen as problematic.