A plan to merge the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Chinese University of Hong Kong into a single "world-class" university has been put on hold after meeting resistance from faculty and students.
The merger was announced in controversial circumstances last October when Arthur Li, secretary for education and manpower in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, informally told journalists that it would occur in 2005. This was before the heads of the two universities were notified.
A University of Science and Technology task force studying the feasibility of the proposal has found that further clarification is needed on several major issues. These include the rationale, repercussions on funding, how research standards will be maintained, and how the different cultures can be gelled together.
Professor Li argues that the two institutions complement each other and could bring cost savings in the long term.
Although the merger is favoured by the universities' heads, the announcement caused uproar among academics, who felt the pre-emptive announcement was an attack on university autonomy and decision-making.
Professor Li, who assumed his post only in August, was accused of appearing dictatorial and using strong language, including comments such as: "I am obliged to do what is good for Hong Kong. I am persuasive. I am prepared to be a gentleman first and a soldier later."
Within days, thousands of students and professors from both universities swamped online message boards, voicing their strong opposition to the plan.
Faculty at the University of Science and Technology issued an open letter to its president, Paul Chu, demanding clarification. He responded swiftly with a message in the university newsletter: "I must reiterate that no agreement has been reached so far, nor any time line discussed."
A University of Science and Technology poll taken at the end of last year found that 86 per cent of faculty and 85 per cent of students opposed the merger.
"There is no way a merger could go ahead when the majority of the faculty is against it," said a professor from the university. "Professor Li has said that there will be no lay-offs, so where will the cost savings be made?"
The government will await the university's report before deciding on how to proceed.
The Chinese University has an annual enrolment of more than 15,000, while the University of Science and Technology has half that number of students.