Students' open and shut case
STUDENTS at the Open Learning Institute would be justified in asking why part-time students at institutions funded by the University and Polytechnic Grants Committee (UPGC) enjoy subsidies of one kind or another, when OLI students are not entitled to such benefits.
The official answer is that the OLI is not a UPGC institution. But why has the OLI not been able to come under the UPGC when it is an accredited tertiary body? The OLI began in 1989 as a Government-established institution offering adults open access (without academic entry requirements to fulfil) to higher education through distance learning, under which students could devise a flexible personalised study schedule.
Its programmes are validated by the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation and degrees conferred are recognised both in Hong Kong and overseas.
There are safeguards to put OLI standards on a par with other degree-granting institutions: the validating process is a highly demanding one; and OLI staff are appointed on salary scales broadly comparable to those paid by the local non-university institutions.
Yet, such safeguards make good and lasting sense only if they are supported by sufficient means. For the OLI, this is a hard nut to crack.
Despite being a new and unconventional operation in Hong Kong, the Government has, without convincing grounds, provided grants to the OLI for only its first four years - reduced from $42.8 million in 1989 to $6.8 million in 1993.
The institute is now self-funded, with tuition fees in 1993-94 ($145.6 million) comprising 95 per cent of its total income (estimated at $161.2 million).
The direct effect is that the tuition fee per credit of study (it takes 160 credits to gain an honours degree) has gone up from $330 in 1989 to $685 in 1994, an increase of more than 100 per cent.
The OLI's self-financed operation has been pursued disregarding proposals that the Government foot the bill for premises, core staff and equipment for the institute, leaving the costs of courses (course materials, tutor fees etc) to be borne by the students.
If such community advice had been accepted, the OLI would have presented a different balance sheet showing a considerably reduced financial burden for students.
The average annual tuition fee paid in 1993 by OLI students on a degree programme was $11,300, about 10 per cent of the average salary. Other academic expenses, which the students may incur in their study, have been excluded.
Indeed, 80 per cent of the OLI students also have to support their families. About four per cent of OLI students earn less than $5,000 per month and a further 12 per cent have a monthly income between $5,000 and $12,000.
The rising tuition fees seems to be the single most important reason for the OLI, with a current intake of 16,000 students, having failed to achieve the planned enrolment of 20,000 in three to five years from its inception, when more than 60,000 people swarmed to secure a place.
IT is against this background that the Government is going to introduce a one-off grant of $50 million to the OLI to enable it to establish a Student Loan Fund to assist students.
To be administered by the Student Financial Assistance Agency, this scheme would allow low-income students to repay their loans after graduation at three per cent interest (to cover administrative costs).
This is a welcome provision from the Government, even though the loan fund, as devised, is not without defects. For instance, it is anticipated that only 2,000 students will benefit per year, plus it is only a one-off commitment.
OLI students - with a longer period of study compared to their full-time counterparts - will take longer to repay their loans, reducing the sum available at any given time.
It is to be hoped that the Government will look closely at the viability of this fund after the first phase of its operation.
Meanwhile, the financial position of the OLI ought to be kept under regular review by the authorities to ensure its vital mission of upgrading the quality of the adult population will not be impaired.