Branch breaking point? Investor abandons Napier's Hong Kong venture

Edinburgh Napier outpost uncertain after Hong Kong land use dispute. David Matthews reports

July 18, 2013

The financial backer of an Edinburgh Napier University branch campus in Hong Kong has withdrawn its support for the institution’s development plans after opposition from protesters who believe the proposed site should be used for housing instead.

The decision casts doubt over the future of the 25-acre Queen’s Hill site in the city, which the Hong Kong government has earmarked for development by private or foreign universities.

Edinburgh Napier has been discussing a Hong Kong outpost for at least a year and a half, but its most recent governing board minutes say that its financial backer, the identity of which is unknown, would be “uncomfortable” being linked to such a “contentious” development.

The bidding process for the site has been delayed “as a result of political pressure surrounding the allocation of the land at this site for education purposes, with protest groups concerned with housing shortages campaigning for the land [to] be re-allocated for housing”, the minutes state.

According to the minutes, from a meeting on 25 March but released only recently: “the university would be exploring and assessing other opportunities and options to establish a physical presence in Hong Kong, using the market analysis and due diligence work already undertaken”.

In January, local media reported rumours that the city government was going to scrap plans to turn Queen’s Hill into a private university and develop housing instead, although there have been no reports of a definite decision.

But the declaration by Edinburgh Napier’s backer suggests that even if the government still hopes to attract a private university, the controversy over the site - in a city with some of the highest rents and house prices in the world - is already deterring potential partners.

Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, said the current Hong Kong administration was “remarkably weak and risk-averse”. “It is therefore likely to try to avoid taking actions that could cause local protests,” he said.

Minutes from an earlier meeting suggest that the university hoped to benefit financially from the new campus. In response to a query as to whether Chinese restrictions would hamper the repatriation of profits, the court was assured that “Hong Kong was not subject to the same restrictions and was more flexible in this area”.

They also show that the board discussed the prospect of opening a joint campus with the University of Aberdeen. Local media reported that Aberdeen had been in the running for the Queen’s Hill site, but the institution said that it was no longer interested in January this year.

Edinburgh Napier already offers a number of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees through two of the city’s institutions. About 3,000 students each year in Hong Kong are on Edinburgh Napier programmes.

A spokesman for Edinburgh Napier said that the possibility of a new campus in Hong Kong would be reviewed “in the coming months” by Andrea Nolan, who took up the post of principal earlier in July.

“As a university with growing international ambitions, we remain very much committed to our current partnership model and expanding our presence in Asia and beyond,” he added in a statement.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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