University leaders and students yesterday lashed out at the government over its plan to merge two institutions, accusing the education chief of trying to bulldoze his proposal through. Student unions at the Chinese University and the University of Science and Technology (HKUST) each issued a strongly worded protest statement against the plan to merge the two. They accused Secretary for Education and Manpower Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung of imposing his will without canvassing the opinions of staff and students first, adding that such interference had compromised the universities' independence. The HKUST student union demanded Professor Li apologise publicly for what it branded an 'irresponsible and impetuous plan', while the Chinese University student union called for a public opinion poll to be taken within the university. Lingnan University president Edward Chen Kwan-yiu also said the official should let the universities decide what was best for them. He said Professor Li's premature announcement had caused misunderstanding and disturbance among teaching staff. 'It should be a bottom-up reform. Let staff of the universities discuss and decide how to reach a consensus on sharing resources. I don't believe it is right if the reform is just the government's wish,' he said. Hong Kong Polytechnic University president Professor Poon Chung-kwong said: 'The government leader could propose his view for us to discuss. But he should not give a mandate to tell us what to do.' Professor Li, who had been Chinese University's vice-chancellor before taking the government post, said last week he wanted to see it merged with HKUST as early as 2005. Chinese University has 15,111 students, while HKUST has 7,400. He said the merger would create 'a world-class university' and set an example for other universities to follow. Professor Li warned that the government would go ahead with the plan, whether the universities liked it or not. He asked people who opposed the plan to explain their reasons. The education chief also earmarked Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd) as the next target for a merger. But HKIEd president Paul Morris complained he had been kept in the dark. Baptist University president Ng Ching-fai on Saturday said the government should respect the universities' decisions. HKUST student union yesterday said it was 'infuriated by Professor Li's authoritarian comments', adding 'the development of the university should lie in the hands of its staff and students, not in the hands of government'. 'Students are the most affected group in this reform, our voice must be reckoned [with],' it said. The Chinese University student union added that the two institutions had different styles and beliefs. 'If the two were forced to merge, they might lose their identities,' it said.