In his last policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen trumpeted the government's dream of transforming Hong Kong into a regional education hub. He announced a series of measures, including increasing the number of foreign students allowed to enrol in local universities and more scholarships for local and non-local students, but there was no mention of creating more university places. They may have been missing from Mr Tsang's policy address but more university places for local students have been on the wish list of educators for some time. Educators appear unanimous in believing that more places are needed to help Hong Kong remain a leading international city, and many say the future lies in creating a thriving private university sector. Although some argue private universities would ease the shortage of places, others are concerned whether standards would be maintained. On the sidelines of the debate, noise levels are rising from institutions that have already indicated they want to join the tertiary sector's major league, from the Hong Kong Institute of Education to Hang Seng School of Commerce and Chu Hai College of Higher Education. This year 35,176 students will battle it out for 14,500 first-year, first-degree places on offer at Hong Kong's eight publicly funded institutions, with the government capping the number of high school students who can go on to university at 18 per cent. In November, the leader of one of the largest public universities attacked the 18 per cent figure and called for more university places. Chinese University vice-chancellor Lawrence Lau Juen-yee noted that Hong Kong compared poorly with other places in the region such as Taiwan, which provides for 100 per cent of students to attend university, and South Korea at 80 per cent. 'Hong Kong cannot even take care of all those who want to study at universities, how can it be a regional education hub?' Professor Lau said. University of Hong Kong chair professor of education Cheng Kai-ming said Hong Kong needed more university-educated workers. 'I always argue that when the workplace was no more than a few huge, pyramidal factories or firms, we needed just a few CEOs. Now that within the 300,000-odd registered companies in Hong Kong, 99.3 per cent of them have under 100 people, 94.3 per cent under 20, and 87 per cent under 10, we need many more CEOs,' he said, adding that frontline workers now had to deal with clients, solve problems, take risks and be innovative. 'Higher education should no longer be the privilege of the few,' Professor Cheng said. Gerard Postiglione, professor of education at HKU, said there was 'absolutely no question' that Hong Kong could increase its degree places now that the city had recovered from the economic troubles of recent years. 'We're out of that now, which means that there's more reason that we can expand,' he said. 'Everyone around us is expanding and we have to remain competitive. If the rhetoric from government is that we are going to be Asia's world city and Asia's educational hub, then clearly we have got reason to expand higher education.' Dean of the Chinese University's education faculty John Lee Chi-kin echoed the call for more places. He would like to see about 25 per cent of students attend university. 'It seems that 25 per cent is at least a figure that we can seriously consider,' Professor Lee said. If the general consensus is that more university places are needed, the question is what would a larger tertiary sector look like? When he made his case for more degree places, CUHK's Professor Lau said private universities could help ease the shortage. 'Offering tertiary education to all who want to study at universities cannot be done by the eight tertiary institutions in Hong Kong, and so it must be open to others to run more universities,' he said. It is not the first time such an idea has been floated. In 2000, the Education Commission recommended that existing post-secondary colleges should be encouraged to upgrade to private universities. To date, only Shue Yan University has succeeded, receiving its university title in December 2006. But educators believe private universities are the way forward. Professor Cheng said it was no longer possible to fund 'massive' higher-education costs with only public money. He said the government should 'learn to dance' with the private sector and provide all the infrastructure to facilitate public institutions, while philanthropy should also be further developed. Although he had concerns about maintaining standards at private universities, Professor Cheng said such concerns should not be a deterrent. 'The needs of society should prevail. We have to indeed find the new way of running higher education,' he said. Asked whether institutions should be awarded university status if they taught only one discipline, Professor Cheng said he was more concerned about the viability than the name of an institution. Professor Postiglione said Hong Kong was rather unique in that most of its higher-education sector was still government-funded. 'That has gone on for a long time but there's quite a bit of space for the growth of private higher education,' he said. But he warned that introducing private universities must be handled with care. 'You need to avoid the establishment of pseudo-universities because, internationally, there are a number of these institutions running around. By that I mean universities which are largely established for profit ... they could take Hong Kong down in terms of its reputation for providing quality higher education,' Professor Postiglione said. He said the HKIEd had 'come a long way very rapidly' but he did not believe institutions that offered only one subject area should be granted university status. Private universities should offer a range of courses because students needed a broad education. CUHK's Professor Lee said community colleges should have the opportunity to upgrade to private universities. But he said institutions should complete several stages of development before being awarded university status. 'I think the Hong Kong government should have very rigorous quality assurance measures to ensure the quality is commensurable with a university offering,' he said. Professor Lee said institutions that focused on one discipline should be judged on their strengths and their ability to fulfil Hong Kong's needs. Under the government's policy of upgrading institutions to private universities, an institute must be authorised to award a range of degrees in different disciplines, have acquired self-accrediting status and have set up sound internal governance and quality assurance structures. An Education Bureau spokesman said that when processing an application for university title, the government would take into account 'various relevant factors, including the objectives of establishing the university, the quality and standard of the institution's academic and research programmes, the effectiveness of its teaching and learning, the institution's internal governance structure, the quality of leadership of its management, the financial position of the institution, its sustainability, and the public interest'. A University Grants Committee spokeswoman said the development of private universities could help cater for an increasing demand for higher education, upgrade 'the quality of our population' and enhance Hong Kong's competitiveness. Although a number of private colleges have expressed a desire to become universities, the institution arguably closest to obtaining the title is the publicly-funded HKIEd. It has been a long battle for the teacher-training institute, which was awarded self-accrediting status - considered a key step towards gaining university title - in 2004. After last year's commission of inquiry heard allegations that former secretary for education and manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung wanted the institute to merge with Chinese University, the campaign for university title appears to be back on track. The institute's application is being reviewed by the University Grants Committee Review Group, which will report to the government by the end of the year. In a statement, president Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said a University of Education would be a centre of excellence in preparing professional educators and promoting quality education research. It would support the development of Hong Kong as an education hub and contribute to the recruitment of quality students, while playing a leading role in the development of teacher education. 'With an increase in research funding and activities, we aim to expand and extend our research capacity extensively to help inform the development and improvement of educational policies and practices through applied research and collaboration with schools, the government and other educational organisations.' He said creating universities with a specific focus was not new to the city. 'There are, for instance, universities in Hong Kong that have focuses on science and technology or liberal arts,' he said. On the private front, the number of contenders putting their hands up for university title continues to grow. Chu Hai College, which offers a broad range of four-year degree programmes from Chinese literature and journalism to civil engineering and commerce, is hoping to obtain university status by next year. 'We're confident that we can get it,' its president, Chang Chung-nan, said. The college, which has 1,600 students, has been able to award its own degrees since 2004. Professor Chang said the degrees were already recognised overseas but acquiring university status would make the college more attractive to potential students and their families. 'In Hong Kong it matters whether you have university status or not,' he said, adding that Chu Hai may have a better chance of becoming a university than institutions that concentrated on one discipline. The president of Hang Seng School of Commerce has pledged to make the college a private university by 2012. Chui Hong-sheung said Hang Seng had the land and facilities to become a private university. Responding to critics who argue that monotechnics should not be awarded university status, Dr Chui said there were many examples of universities around the world that concentrated on only one discipline. The school, which has 1,250 students, plans to expand its course offerings beyond finance, accounting and commerce to include communications, journalism and languages. As Hong Kong debates the future makeup of its higher-education sector, it appears there is no shortage of potential players waiting in the wings. The thousands of students who consider a university education vital to success will be watching closely.