【明報專訊】HONG KONG is keen on developing its education industry and private tertiary education. However, there is doubt that the University of Hong Kong's plan to set up a private college (Centennial College) is feasible, and Hang Seng Management College expects to be in the red this year. It has suggested that the government provide it with funding.
Hong Kong's public coffers brim with money. It would be better for the government to benefit society by spending more of its reserves on education than to waste money by making handouts. Chief Executive Donald Tsang talked about developing Hong Kong's education industry in his last three policy addresses. He takes the view that self-financed tertiary education is an important component of Hong Kong's education industry. The problem is that society has yet to discuss thoroughly what the aim should be of using public resources (land and money) to develop private tertiary education. Should the focus be on "education" or on "industry"?
Undergraduate places are in short supply in the SAR. In 2010, 6,000 students qualified to go to university were not admitted under the Joint University Programmes Admissions System. Some say private universities may provide such students with an avenue. However, a private university is by nature one that pays for the costs of providing its programmes with its tuition revenue and does not rely on the taxpayer for money. Now Hang Seng Management College is in financial difficulty and has turned to the government for money. Can a private university be truly private if the government helps finance its programmes?
There are eight government-financed universities in the territory. They are well established and have good track records. Some of them rank high in the world. If the government decides to devote more resources to tertiary education and provides a new institution with funding that has no track record and is in the red, it must put forward persuasive arguments. Some educationists have suggested that, while a government-funded undergraduate place costs as much as $220,000 a year, a private one costs only $100,000 a year. The question is whether bachelor's degrees that are less costly would be considered "second-rate" like associate degrees. This is indeed a worry.
If a Hong Kong private university wants the government to help fund its operations, the public expects it to produce a convincing business plan. It must at least tell citizens how many students it expects to draw from other places, for how many years the government will have to provide it with funding, when it will recoup its investment and what its rate of return will be. Without such data, citizens can hardly judge whether the government should finance its operations year after year or invest public money in other industries for better returns.
The government-funded universities form the backbone of Hong Kong's tertiary education sector. Its private universities are still in their infancy. They are a very mixed bag. They have difficulty surviving, not to mention bringing Hong Kong foreign exchange by drawing students from other places.
People often lump "education" and "industry" together when they talk about the development of private tertiary education. However, they are totally different concepts and call for different policy measures. Few can be optimistic about the development of private tertiary education in Hong Kong unless this is made clear.