Nine tertiary institutions want to be upgraded to private universities - a step that would allow them to greatly boost enrolment - and they have urged the government to lay down a clear route to that goal. The administration has identified education as one of six 'pillar' industries for the city and recently set aside land for private universities. But the real problem, say the tertiary institutions, is that there is no law spelling out the steps needed to become a private university. 'There's no use in providing just small pieces of land,' said City University Community College principal Jennifer Ng Glok-hong, who argues that there has to be more support measures in place. The city's only private university, Shue Yan University, won its status in 2006 after a two-decade struggle. At present, there is no law governing the establishment of private universities. The only law now applicable to those who aspire to become a private university is the Post Secondary Colleges Ordinance, enacted in 1960. Any institution that passes accreditation by the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications can be registered under the ordinance. It then has to apply for degree-awarding status for each programme it intends to offer. If Shue Yan's experience is anything to go by, the granting of degree-awarding status is the first step to getting a private university title. 'The government should set up an ordinance specifying rules like the percentage of professors in a faculty that should have PhDs and facility requirements like library size,' said Chui Hong-sheung, the principal of Hang Seng School of Commerce. Hang Seng was recently granted degree-awarding status for two programmes, in business administration and supply management. Professor Peter Yuen Pok-man, dean of Polytechnic University's College of Professional and Continuing Education, said the indefinite wait for university status was frustrating. 'Without a law spelling out the procedures and a road map for establishment of private universities, investors will be at a loss over how many years they have to wait before they can get a university title,' he said. Another issue the tertiary institutions would like addressed is 'top-up' degrees jointly offered by local tertiary institutions and overseas universities. Running from one to two years, top-up degrees are for those who aim for a degree qualification after completing sub-degree programmes. Such degrees are cheaper than locally accredited degrees and come with a shorter study period. There are currently 366 top-up degrees with varying costs and study periods. Ng said locally accredited, self-financed degree programmes were no match for top-up degrees with lower costs and shorter study periods. 'It takes a long time for an institute to become a private university. The degree certificates awarded by local institutes would not have the title of university on them,' she said. 'But the top-up degrees are awarded by overseas universities and they cost just HK$30,000 and the study period could be as short as one year. If you are a student, which degree would you choose to study for? 'Although we have plans to offer degrees, we will not go ahead with them if the government doesn't do something about the top-up degree market.' A severe land shortage is another concern of tertiary institutions that want to develop into private universities. They say sites pledged so far are too small for the construction of a proper university, which should be complete with hostels, sports facilities and other amenities. Four institutions - Polytechnic University's College of Professional and Continuing Education, the University of Hong Kong School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKUSpace), the Hong Kong College of Technology and City University's Community College - say they will contest two urban sites reserved by the government for the provision of self-financed degrees. The Open University also said it would like an extra site. The sites in Ho Man Tin and Wong Chuk Hang can accommodate 4,000 students, boosting the number of self-financed degree places from 9,000 to 13,000. Despite the clamour for more speed, the Education Bureau said a step-by-step approach must be followed. 'The objective of developing education as a pillar industry is not to set up an abundance of private universities in a short time,' it said. 'We will maintain our strict and cautious approach to ensure quality.'