When Leung Chi-keung went to the Restaurant Workers' Number Two School in Yau Ma Tei in the early post-war years, the frail boy from a poor family lived in admiration and awe of his teachers. 'They were like gods,' he recalls. Today, the Director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education hopes to restore some of the prestige in which teachers have traditionally been held in Chinese society. At the same time, and more importantly, he hopes to elevate teaching standards in our schools. Answers to both challenges are focused on the new $2.3 billion campus rising above Tolo Harbour. There Professor Leung, one of Hong Kong's most respected academics, will spearhead a revolutionary drive that will change the face of teaching in Hong Kong. The stunning modern campus will be finished next year when the first 30 degree-level students are enrolled in Bachelor of Education courses. At present, Dr Leung works from offices in Causeway Bay where he is finalising details of the degree format. This is vital to the success of what is one of the most ambitious educational processes in our history. He is adamant that the degree 'benchmark' must be correct. On that depends the victory of the institute's initial drive, to upgrade qualifications of Hong Kong's existing 39,000 teachers. Basically, primary teachers have been recruited without degrees but have had professional teaching qualifications in our five teaching colleges. Secondary teachers all had degrees, but no formal training as teachers. The institute aims to create a centre for excellence in education, training the teachers of the future. The ultimate aim is for all teachers, from kindergarten to vocational schools, to have both a degree and to be professionally trained. Simon Ip Sik-on, the prominent lawyer who was asked four years ago to study an Education Commission report and who guided the formation of the institute, contends the $2.3 billion capital cost is a sound investment. What can be more important for the future of Hong Kong than first-class teachers to educate the citizens of the 21st century? Mr Ip admits he knew nothing of teachers' training when former Secretary for Education and Manpower, John Chan Cho-chak, telephoned him in 1992. The lawyer was soon to find out a lot. Like most Hong Kongers, he did not realise that primary school teachers did not have to possess university degrees. On the other hand, they did have to have been to one of the various teaching colleges and have professional qualifications as teachers. It was a baffling situation. The ideal solution, he argues, is that all teachers in Hong Kong, from pre-primary to secondary school, have both academic degrees and be trained to teach. The situation Mr Ip studied was a mismatch that had grown over many years. Scattered over Hong Kong were five teachers' colleges and the Institute for Language in Education. The Education Commission recommended that these schools, all commendable in their own way, be combined into one major organisation, and one that would be structured to issue specific degrees in education. He accepted the charge. It was not always easy. Staff at the training colleges were given options to either upgrade their qualifications, on full pay and sometimes at overseas universities, or to continue their civil service careers within the Education Department. The new 500-strong academic staff contains a majority of teachers from the colleges, with a strong infusion of highly-qualified specialist academics recruited from around the world. A campus was provided with blinding speed, even by Hong Kong standards. The Government gave a superb 12.5-hectare site in Tai Po, looking over Tolo Harbour. Basic money was no problem and covered the impressive campus for 5,000 full-time equivalent students, staff quarters, impressive students' accommodation blocks and landscaping. Mr Ip is now looking for benefactors to help finance an International Exchange Centre. Here, academics from around the world will be able to stay as they give their input to our education structure. Language teaching - and instructing teachers how to train students in languages - is one vital key. Cantonese, Putonghua and English will be the major languages. When first students enroll on campus next year, it will be the start of a new page in Hong Kong education. In addition to young students who have decided on a career as teachers, the institute - with its urban office at a site still to be picked - will also provide a wide variety of part-time courses for existing teachers who want to upgrade their qualifications. The result will be higher-quality teaching for the students of the future. 'Children are our greatest asset,' the quietly-spoken lawyer contends. 'They deserve teachers who are professionally trained and educated.' Dr Leung, OBE, who was Professor of Geography at the University of Hong Kong, dean of the Faculty of Arts and at one time chairman of the Transport Advisory Committee, was selected as director of the institute. Having spent most of his life as an academic, he had been outspokenly critical of some aspects of our educational system. He says teachers today are excellent, as were those who taught him so conscientiously in Yau Ma Tei four decades ago. But times have changed, and so has the status they hold in society. Then, teachers were the sole source of most information students received. Now, they have to compete with television, radio, cartoons and the Internet. And with swelling class sizes, relationships have changed between teachers and students. There is now not enough time to spend with individual students. Structuring the new institute to educate future generations of teachers and to help upgrade the skills of 20,000 primary teachers and 19,000 secondary teachers calls for a campus with many choices. Will Hong Kong get value-for-money from the institute? Dr Leung grins. 'This is a debt Hong Kong owes its people,' he insists. 'It's been owed for 50 years. We've got a good education system, but still offer sub-degree qualifications for teachers.' Basically, secondary teachers will be able to add formal teaching qualifications to existing degrees by either a one-year full-time course or by two-year part-time studies at the institute. Primary teachers will be able to get a degree in education after two years' full-time study. By early in the 21st century, graduates leaving the Tai Po campus will be well-rounded, cultured and qualified teachers. They will have something in common with the refugee primary teachers of Yau Ma Tei in the desperate post-war years, Dr Leung says. Students will be able to look up and admire them.