HONG KONG spends more than $700 million a year on overseas students studying in SAR universities, it has emerged. The packages for overseas students are among the most generous in the world. Legislators and a member of the Education Commission said the Government was being too 'generous' and urged it to cut the funding for overseas students. The news came after the Post reported last week that the University Grants Committee had told university heads that a cut of up to $5 billion, or 10 per cent, in funding could be expected for the years from 2001 to 2004. The Government has, for a long time, adopted a policy of charging foreign students local fees and sponsoring some post-graduates with studentships. In the current academic year 2,198 foreign students study in local universities. Of these, 97 are working on undergraduate degrees, 1,277 on masters' degrees and 824 on doctorate degrees. These students pay the same tuition fees as their local counterparts, $42,100 a year. This only covers 18 per cent of the government costs. This mean the Government has subsidised non-local students to the tune of $233,900 a year each and in total has spent more than $514 million annually. About 1,200 postgraduate students are provided with studentships, which are each worth between $13,500 and $17,500 a month - which amounts to about $223 million a year. Overseas students do not need to apply for a studentship separately from their admission application and the money is awarded according to academic merit. Universities said the money was to ensure students' tuition fees and living expenses were covered so that they could devote their efforts to their studies. But they have to perform some teaching and research tasks as part of their training. In Western countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, overseas students are charged two to three times more than local students for tuition. Most universities in the rest of Asia do not usually provide waivers to foreign students. Some examples are: Tohoku University in Japan does not offer fellowships to non-local students; the Yonsei University in South Korea only offers teaching assistantships to Koreans; foreign students have to pay higher fees if they want to study at Taiwan University; and students studying at the National University of Singapore have to work in the country for three years after graduation if they want to get a tuition waiver. A spokesman for the Education and Manpower Bureau said the policy 'enables Hong Kong universities to attract more talented students and distinguished scholars from outside Hong Kong so as to inject an element of healthy competition and enhance the global outlook of local students'. But legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing of The Frontier, also a member of the Legco Public Accounts Committee, said the offer was too good. 'I agreed that we should have some overseas students in, but their fees could be higher,' she said. Democratic Party legislator Cheung Man-kwong said the tuition policy was unfair for local students.