It seems as though it was only yesterday that we reported the scrapping of plans to merge Chinese University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It was in fact March, 2004, and John Niland, convenor of the special working group to probe the proposal by education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, said at the time there were 'better alternatives than focusing all the energy on the two institutions'. 'Deep collaboration' was suggested as the best way forward. There was also a proposal to merge the Hong Kong Institute of Education with CUHK. 'Clearly a reasonable move,' Professor Li said. Professor Niland's recommendation was thought at the time to close a chapter opened by Professor Li shortly after his appointment two years earlier, during which he described himself as 'a matchmaker'. He would pursue his merger policy famously as a 'gentleman first and then a soldier'. 'Pursuing a merger between Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is a priority for me during my term of office,' Professor Li said in one of two briefings on the subject. 'I want the merger to result in a world-class university. I am persuasive ... people who object to the idea of a merger need to come up with good reasons for not wanting it.' They did, and most people thought that was that. Until, that is, Professor Li - now in his 'green apples' period and approaching what many in the know say are probably his last few months in the job - resurrected the merger idea. At a meeting in December to discuss HKIEd's campaign for university status, Professor Li said the institute should come up with a plan that could involve incorporating the education faculties of other universities or seek a merger with HKUST. We learn this week that the government favours 'malleable' leadership at HKIEd, presumably to make it easier to get its way on plans for the institute's future. But as HKIEd faces changes in the undergraduate landscape brought about by the new degree structure, and focuses on the need to up the ante on postgraduate research, it needs quite the opposite of malleable leadership and top-down declarations about how it should proceed and with whom. It should be given the university status it needs to attract quality students, staff and researchers, independence to form partnerships - deep or otherwise - with whomsoever it feels it needs to advance education training, and allowed to appoint - or reappoint - strong leadership to guide it accordingly. When the EMB's 'gentleman and soldier' has laid down his sword, HKIEd will still be there doing what is vital for Hong Kong in its pursuit of the knowledge economy - educating tomorrow's educators. It should be helped, not hindered.