In September 1988, when Professor Woo Chia-wei took up his appointment as the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) president, it had not even come into being. Now, as he prepares for his retirement next year, he can recall more than 12 eventful years at the top and look back on the challenges faced at the beginning. 'The campus was then a barren hillside - no electricity, no water, no sewage system, just like the outlying islands over there,' he said, pointing out of his Clearwater Bay campus office window and across Port Shelter to the islands opposite. It was a stark contrast to his previous position as president of the influential San Francisco State University from 1983 to 1988 - he was the first academic of Chinese origin to take the helm of a major US university - and in the early days he had the hard task of trying to convince overseas academics to join the university. 'The colony's bad reputation for science and technology discouraged prestigious academics from coming here. Worse, in the aftermath of the June 4 incident in 1989, the political future of Hong Kong looked bleak in the eyes of people in western countries,' he said. Nor did the salary cut implicit in coming to the new university help recruitment. But the university admitted its first batch of students in 1991,and has since emerged as one of the leading tertiary institutions in the SAR, internationally renowned for its research. For seven consecutive years, the success rate and per-capita funding of HKUST projects have beaten those of other local universities in the Research Grants Council's competitive research grants programme. 'We took only five years to admit 7,000 students, while it took 70 years for the University of Hong Kong to do that,' Professor Woo said. At one point he was appointing 10 faculty members a month. What is perhaps most encouraging to the 63-year-old physicist is that the ambience has changed in the SAR in the past few years. 'People in Hong Kong have gradually accepted that it needs to enhance its competitiveness by investing in science and technology. At least hi-tech is no longer a dirty word.' His successes are various, but Professor Woo, well known for his frankness, has also been plagued by controversies in his time, ranging from the alleged overrun of the university's construction cost to his salary of around $210,000 a month, including $30,000 from private sources. While dismissing such allegations as 'groundless', Professor Woo admits he has been 'too blunt, too straightforward and too impatient' for some people. 'University heads are supposed to do something unorthodox and controversial and have no time to worry about public relations,' he said. 'I always speak my mind, so I offended lots of people from time to time. But shouldn't everybody be straightforward?' Such plain-speaking belies some regrets, however. 'We're not able to help Hong Kong to move faster to a knowledge-based society,' the professor acknowledged. 'There was a hi-tech fever in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. But some people are now falling back to the old track, still trusting real estate development more.' He said the university had failed to influence Hong Kong's leadership in matters of education and science. 'Given Hong Kong's affluence, we should have spent more on education. But the Government only spends about four per cent of gross domestic product on education. In Taiwan, it is seven per cent. Don't forget that Taiwan's GDP per capita is only half that of Hong Kong's.' He regards it as wrong-headed to lump higher and basic education together in carving up the small sum available for education. 'Basic education needs more funding, but not at the expense of universities,' he remarked. It was equally ridiculous to fund universities at the expense of primary and secondary schools in the early 1990s, he said. 'What is at stake is not who gets the smaller slice of the pie, but the unreasonably small size of the pie itself.' The professor, who attended Pui Ching Middle School in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, supports the Government's proposal to provide 60 per cent of secondary school-leavers with access to higher education in the coming decade, but said it must be backed with sufficient financial support. He also warned that the strong economy in the US has enabled universities there to retain outstanding faculty members and attract others. 'We have lost several assistant professors to the University of Cornell, University of California, Berkeley and Harvard in the past three years. A chair professor was lured to Ohio State University and has had his remuneration package increased 50 per cent.' But he is adamant that the prospect for higher education in the SAR is positive. 'We've overcome the hard times of a decade ago and it's now easier to lure faculty members to Hong Kong.' Professor Woo plans to remain in Hong Kong next year after his retirement and take up the arts and music courses he has had too little time to do.