The education chief hinted yesterday that the government is open to increasing the quota for publicly funded university places - but not right now. Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung told legislators his bureau was actively looking into the possibility of providing more places, but refused to commit to a timetable due to the economic climate. 'We are considering that, but this is not the time to talk about increasing the number of university places,' he said. 'Financially speaking, the administration is in a very tight situation, especially after the past few weeks.' Mr Suen made the comments after members of the Legislative Council's education panel repeated calls for him to expand the annual limit of 14,500 first-year degree places. Legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said the fact that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's policy address last week did not touch on the issue was 'the most disappointing part' of the speech. 'Why is this magic number of 14,500 a cap that cannot be broken?' he asked. 'You talk a lot about developing Hong Kong as an education hub, but why are you not willing to increase the quota?' He said allowing more school leavers and associate degree graduates to enter university was essential to Hong Kong's future supply of professional talent and to maintain the city's international competitiveness. 'Why can't the Education Bureau say that it has a 10-year plan for developing talent?' he said. 'If we do not start this year, we will not be able to catch up [with the rest of the world].' Mr Suen said it would be wrong to 'deny that substantial progress has been made' in supporting tertiary education. 'With the '3+3+4' reform, universities are moving from a three-year to a four-year degree. That is a major improvement,' he said. 'Sub-degree students are also part of the tertiary education system, even if they do not go on to a full degree.' He said the government was working under considerable constraints due to the impact of international financial instability. Mr Lee said he believed Hong Kong could still afford to increase access to university education. 'It seems there is a light at the end of the tunnel,' he said. 'This is not a short-term initiative. This is about long-term benefits for Hong Kong.'