Land pressure could threaten higher education hub status

When Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying told a radio programme that land on a site understood to be earmarked for student accommodation in the Kowloon area would instead be partly used for private residential flats, students and teachers from Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) staged a number of demonstrations.

HKBU had said it had been requesting the land near its main campus in Kowloon since 2005 to build student accommodation and a Chinese medicine school.

Separately, Hong Kong’s administration had invited expressions of interest in 2011 from education institutions for 16 hectares of the 25-hectare Queen’s Hill site in Fanling, previously a British Army camp, close to the border with the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Nine institutions from Hong Kong and overseas – including the UK’s Aberdeen University – expressed an interest in the Fanling site and submitted proposals, only to read in local media in December that the plan for a private university was on hold, as the entire site could be used for public housing instead.

The incidents have brought to the fore the pressures on Hong Kong’s bid for higher education hub status.

Squeezed between mainland China and the South China Sea, and with less than 10% of available land designated for residential use, land for housing has become a major political issue in Hong Kong, with rents among the highest in the world.

For any plans to invite new universities or to expand universities, in particular to build accommodation for extra students, higher education institutions must compete for land.

“Providing land should be part and parcel of the government’s established policy to develop Hong Kong into an educational hub in Asia, attracting talents from the [Chinese] mainland and South East Asia to study here and hopefully some will stay after graduation and contribute to Hong Kong’s long-term economic development,” said HKBU lecturer Victor Fung Keung in an opinion article published this month in the Hong Kong edition of China Daily newspaper.

Building universities and providing private housing are equally important, said Fung, but Hong Kong’s administration needed “the wisdom to strike a balance”.

And some warn that scaling back on hub plans would put Hong Kong behind its major regional competitor, Singapore, which is drawing in foreign students and forging ahead with research collaborations, including with industry.

Land proposals

Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Eddie Ng told journalists on 28 January during a visit to London, where he was attending an education ministers’ summit, that Hong Kong was “running out of land”.

For Hong Kong, “top of the top priority is housing. [It’s] absolutely critical,” he admitted.

Although planning documents were released by the Town Planning Board in Hong Kong showing a rezoning of part of the Fanling site from “government, institutional or community use” or “open space” to “residential”, Ng insisted in London that the Queen's Hill project was ongoing.

“It is a very big piece of land, very difficult to come by,” Ng said. “We set it aside...for higher education purposes.

“A general idea was to provide that land for about 8,000 students and 4,000 hostel places, and we are finalising the bidding documents and expect to open for worldwide bidding.”

“As a secretary of education I have never received anything of this kind – asking me to do something different...[It’s] business as usual,” he said.

According to experts, the nine expressions of interest in the Queen’s Hill project had already been scrutinised by the Hong Kong government’s Education Bureau, making it legally difficult to withdraw. But it has been suggested that the site use could be changed if the tenders fail.

And students said that such was the pressure for land, the government may not simply withdraw sites for higher education use but may cut back on the area, as they had in Kowloon.

HKBU students said that the entire site was needed for student accommodation, particularly since academic reforms in Hong Kong have added an extra year of study to the undergraduate degree.

Ng confirmed that part of the land close to HKBU in Kowloon “had been returned to the government”.

Difficult to expand

But Ng insists that education hub ambitions are on track. “Hong Kong has a specific focus on [being a] knowledge-based economy.”

To that end, the Hong Kong administration has expanded the number of universities and private colleges, and plans to release another four sites for new institutions.

It has doubled the quota of foreign students including those from China at public universities from 10% to 20%, relaxed visa regulations, and set up a bursary fund to attract more overseas students.

But Roland Chin, deputy vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University, told University World News: “Even if we relax the non-local students quota to 30%, I doubt universities can push up to it because of the lack of [student] housing.”

In October, as a double cohort hit Hong Kong’s university campuses – the last year of the three-year degree students and the first of the four-year degree – the University Grant’s Committee revealed that universities were short of 5,000 student hostel places if all students were to live on campus for one year of their four-year undergraduate degrees.

Contingency measures had to be put in place, such as using school classrooms in surrounding areas and other temporary space for teaching. And some students had to be accommodated in cheap hotels after delays in opening newly constructed hostel blocks last year.

Trying to prepare venues and facilities posed “a lot of challenges”, Ng admitted. “There is always a bit of a gap between planning and reality.” He added that the situation would ease next year.

China campuses

With limited space for campus expansion, Hong Kong’s universities have been looking to China. Hong Kong University, HKBU and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have already set up branches on the mainland.

“Collaboration with the mainland is the key direction for Hong Kong,” said HKU’s Chin.

The Hong Kong administration also has plans for another four institutions, or possibly a new university, at Lok Ma Chau, an area originally in China but administered by Hong Kong after the Shenzhen River, which formed the border, was straightened in the 1990s leaving the area within Hong Kong.

But plans are moving slowly. “Lok Ma Chau will take a few years because this is a new model” between two cities, Hong Kong and Shenzhen,” Ng said. “There’s still a lot of discussion to go,” and no timetable set.

Arch-rival Singapore is already moving into Hong Kong’s own backyard in China’s southern Guangdong province, which shares a language (Cantonese) and culture with Hong Kong rather than Mandarin-speaking Singapore.

A new Sino-Singaporean venture, Guangzhou Knowledge City, is being planned, the second after an industry and knowledge park in Suzhou.

“Singapore is our main competitor in Asia,” said Chin. But he believes Hong Kong can maintain its lead over Singapore – not with government funding as was the case in Singapore, but because of Hong Kong’s university autonomy and better university leadership.

And that requires no extra land.

* Patrick Boehler contributed to this article.