THE new school year has just got under way, providing ambitious parents with a fresh and painful reminder that school fees are getting higher and government grants and loans scarcer. Degree-course fees will average $51,650 by the end of the decade, well up from $8,700 at its beginning. Meanwhile, fewer than half of those attending the University of Hong Kong in the last academic year received a student loan or grant. Caught in this bind, more students and their parents are attempting to meet education expenses by turning to credit cards, which accrue interest at annual rates as high as 42 per cent. There are other options. Hongkong Bank offers an inexpensive education loan. Parents - or students with monthly salaries of more than $1,500 - can borrow up to $50,000 or the full cost of college fees, whichever is less. With an interest rate of 1 per cent, this is an attractive scheme. The major catch is that the sum advanced goes directly to the college and can be used only for fees, not living expenses. In addition, the only Hong Kong educational institution at which the loan can be used is the Open Learning Institute. Four overseas institutions are also eligible. For those needing help with the cost of living, Hongkong Bank has on offer only standard personal loans. These carry interest at an annual rate of 24.7 per cent (comparable to many credit cards) and require evidence of a regular and sufficient salary, putting them beyond the reach of many students. Overall, banks have shown little interest in the student-loan market. Eva Low, Standard Chartered Bank's communications manager, said her bank had not placed much emphasis on student banking. Limited as the options are, they narrow even further if you look at the more-expensive option of education abroad. Those costs could be difficult to bear. Goverment-operated student-loan schemes in probable study destinations such as Australia, Britain and the United States, are generally closed to non-nationals. The Hong Kong Government scheme obviously does not apply. Banks in the country of study are also unlikely to assist. Andrew Robinson, manager of offshore banking at one of Britain's largest lenders, Lloyds Bank, said: 'We will assist overseas clients in opening one of the student accounts available to our UK customers, but they will not be entitled to the lending benefits of those accounts.' British students are generally entitled to a free overdraft, cheap banking and borrowing, and a credit card with a small spending limit. This runs alongside the government's comprehensive system of universal loans and means-tested grants for living expenses. Tuition is free for local students but will come in at about GBP11,880 (about HK$143,154) for their foreign counterparts this year and is expected to rise to GBP16,163 by 2000. Costs in Australia and the US are only marginally lower. Without significant savings or a large parental income, the price of an overseas education is too high for most Hong Kong undergraduates. For families fortunate enough to be able to swing the costs - either on their own or by way of employer-sponsored education packages - getting money to children while they study abroad is another worry. The easiest way around this problem is to use the global network of automatic teller machines (ATMs) to directly access a variety of bank accounts. Mr Robinson suggested setting up an offshore savings account into which parents could deposit a regular fixed amount of Hong Kong dollars. Children studying overseas could use ATMs to draw directly from it in their local currency. Along the same lines, Hongkong Bank offers Global Access, a Hong Kong account from which money can be drawn directly, again by using ATMs around the world. Neither method was designed with the needs of overseas students in mind, but they still represent the easiest option for getting money around the world. The message to parents is planning. It is already too late for those whose education expenses have been put on costly plastic. But for those imminently facing college costs, an open mind to unorthodox borrowing and banking arrangements could be the best way to avoid a succession of costly credit-card bills.