The Hong Kong Government is inviting bids from overseas universities to establish campuses there as part of a drive to boost its knowledge economy.
In an announcement last week, it unveiled an economic development strategy that includes plans to reserve two prime urban sites in the densely populated region for "self- financed" campuses, most likely to be provided by overseas institutions.
Kenneth Chen Wei-on, Undersecretary for Education, was quoted in the South China Morning Post newspaper saying that private providers were "crucial" to Hong Kong's future development.
The sites will have a minimum floor space of 200,000 sq ft each, and each will accommodate at least 2,000 students. More details will be released later this year.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Anthony Cheung, a member of the executive council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd), said: "Hong Kong is a low-tax regime, so you can't increase tax to fund more university places. Money is finite, and more students are aspiring to enter higher education.
"The Hong Kong Government is encouraging private universities to grow here - there is a new, developing policy to support private institutions."
He suggested that institutions from the UK, the US and Australia would be prime candidates for the campuses.
Professor Cheung spoke to Times Higher Education before the Hong Kong Government confirmed plans last week to support the expansion of his own institution, HKIEd, transforming it from a specialist teacher-training provider to a "multidisciplinary" and fully fledged university with research programmes (see box above).
Hong Kong, with a population of about 7 million, currently has eight universities - one of which is private.
The Government, through the University Grants Committee (UGC), funded 15,400 first-year undergraduate places for 2007-08 - a figure Professor Cheung described as a "sacred cow" that has barely changed in the past decade. It represents 18.5 per cent of the 17- to 20-year-old age group, up from 16.8 per cent in 1998-99.
Under a plan unveiled in 2007, the Government is already pushing ahead with proposals to develop Hong Kong into a "regional education hub" and attract more non-local students.
Admission quotas for non-local students have been increased from 10 per cent to 20 per cent of local numbers. At present, more than 90 per cent of non-local students hail from mainland China, but there is a drive to broaden the range of countries represented.
"The presence of non-local students... allows Hong Kong to attract more talent and enhance the quality of our population. This will in turn facilitate economic development and enhance Hong Kong's overall competitiveness in the long run," says a statement from the UGC.
Hong Kong's economic strategy includes the promotion of six core "knowledge-based industries identified as new engines of economic growth". These are: medical services; educational services; testing and certification; innovation and technology; cultural and creative industries; and environmental industries.
Do your research: Institute to upgrade to university
As part of its drive to enhance local higher education, the Hong Kong Government is investing HK$22 million (£1.74 million) to expand the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd).
With government backing, the specialist teacher-training provider unveiled its strategic plan for 2009-12 this week.
Hong Kong's University Grants Committee has agreed to fund an extra 120 "first-year, first-degree" students each year, on top of the existing 500 students. It will also finance 30 research-postgraduate students a year to allow HKIEd to offer research-degree programmes.
HKIEd will seek formal status as a university. Education will remain its focus, but it will offer a range of "complementary" disciplines, starting with three degree programmes: language and literature; creative arts and culture; and humanities and social sciences.
It has already begun a campaign to recruit senior researchers from overseas.
In January 2008, it had 12 professors. It now has 34, and it plans to employ 40 professors by 2010. "And we hope it will be even higher," said Anthony Cheung, president of HKIEd. "Forty is the minimum for the academic size we want."
He added that two thirds of HKIEd's new professors were foreign, most of them from Australia. The plan is to ensure that professors make up at least 15 per cent of academic staff by 2012, and that 60 per cent of faculty are "active researchers".