How many top-flight academics does it take to thrash out the meaning of one of education's most quoted - and often misunderstood - buzz phrases? The answer is eight, and the phrase is 'education hub'. At a conference last week during which the heads of eight universities tried to make sense of what a regional education hub meant and debated how Hong Kong could assume the position, Baptist University president Ng Ching-fai was the first to spell out his vision. Apart from attracting overseas teachers and students, he said an education centre should be able to make an impact on the region by training talent and contributing to regional economic growth. Professor Ng believed Hong Kong was ready to be an education hub. Local universities had received recognition in international league tables and their research capacity was credited in the Research Assessment Exercise, the results of which were recently released by the University Grants Committee, he said. 'I wouldn't be as sure if you asked me whether we were ready 10 years ago,' Professor Ng said. Polytechnic University head Poon Chung-kwong envisaged Hong Kong's role as an education hub in the context of the development of China. 'We should help our country by making use of our strengths, such as the extent of internationalisation enjoyed by our universities,' he said. Hong Kong could step in where the mainland lacked expertise. 'It's important to cater for the demand for professional knowledge,' Professor Poon said, giving the example of programmes in tourism offered by PolyU that prepared professionals for the booming industry. Tsui Lap-chee, vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, stressed the urgency to boost academic research to attract talent from around the world. 'A good university doesn't only excel in teaching, it creates knowledge via research,' he said. 'Government support is very important.' Roland Chin Tai-hong, acting president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said research was an indispensable part of teaching. The government invested a mere 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product in university research, he said, compared with 3 per cent in Finland, 2.8 per cent in South Korea and 1.5 per cent on the mainland. Neither was there enough support from private enterprises for academic research, Professor Chin said, adding there was a severe shortage of research students in Hong Kong. 'The number in Singapore is at least twice ours,' he said. 'We should internationalise our universities further by luring first-class researchers and professors from all over the world. It's only when top-notch professors are here that we can attract the best students.' Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said international scholars found Hong Kong attractive. 'You don't have to know Chinese to get around the city. And we enjoy academic freedom, an unrestricted flow information and proximity to China, where much of the global attention is focused on,' he said. That said, private universities must be allowed to flourish if the city were to become an education hub. 'We can't only rely on the UGC. There aren't even enough undergraduate places for Hong Kong students,' Professor Lau said. But Professor Poon of PolyU pointed out the difficulties of creating a pool of private universities - namely the absence of large endowment funds that often backed private universities in the US and a lack of land. 'We are still quite far away from the ideal,' he said. The leaders were unanimous in their call for the government to play a bigger role in promoting Hong Kong as an education hub. 'The government should be more proactive and formulate a comprehensive policy,' said John Leong Chi-yan, president of the Open University. He suggested setting up a group of university representatives to come up with a policy. The government should relax policies to allow more international students into Hong Kong, provide adequate student hostel places and offer scholarships for top students and those from developing countries. 'We have to break the cycle of Asian students flocking to study in the west,' he said. Lingnan University president Edward Chen Kwan-yiu said students benefited from immersion in different cultures. 'We want to recruit students from South Asia, Africa and islands in the Pacific to give our young people as much exposure as possible,' he said. Professor Chen said he had tried in vain to persuade the government to set up a centralised scholarship - such as the Rhodes and the Commonwealth scholarships - to attract more international students. The government should do more to promote universities abroad. 'Our universities are understated. People in other parts of the world don't know much about us.' Lukewarm government effort aside, narrow mindsets are preventing Hong Kong from becoming an education hub. CityU president Chang Hsin-kang said young people in Hong Kong were not equipped with knowledge of international affairs. He hoped society would come to realise the importance of Hong Kong becoming an education hub. Professor Chen of Lingnan said teachers and students in Hong Kong were not ready for internationalisation. 'Some think it's a burden. Others resist English teaching because they think learning in English means denying our national identity,' he said. Foreign students were seen as a threat to access to tertiary education for local students. 'We must educate students about globalisation more thoroughly,' Professor Chen said.