THERE ARE NO distinguished professors at this non-profit educational institution, no grand settings, expensive fees, credits or degrees offered. Welcome to the self-styled and radical Grassroots College which claims to offer the chance for students to 'read' social and political thought while interacting with 'ordinary people' in its 500 sq ft makeshift office and classroom on the 12th floor of a Mongkok industrial building. Working with a few community groups and supported by limited donations, former student leader Walker Fung Kai-yuen and nine other founding members are spearheading an experimental project, which they launched in March last year. The founders include students, union leaders, tutors and workers, who are united by their concern for the plight of the marginalised and underprivileged. Recruiting for this college relies more on word of mouth than anything else. Fung, who graduated in philosophy from Chinese University this year and is the only full-time member of staff, liaises with community groups, organises students, designs workshops and prepares course notes, among other things. Perhaps better known for being fined for obstruction in a public place after a protest against genetically modified food last May, he explained his commitment to the unusual project: 'I know student union activists who protested about the right-of-abode issue in 1998 and became famous but abandoned the issue eventually. That's not the right attitude. Social issues should be addressed on a long-term basis. 'Through study groups and talks, our college offers a mutual learning opportunity for both university students and the less privileged. The former's academic background provides a macro perspective on world issues while the latter's real-life stories serve as a basis for discussion,' he said. The college's areas of study range from community relations, economics and globalisation to women's issues, working conditions and environmental awareness. But despite the political nature of many of the issues the college focuses on, Fung claims it does not have a clear political agenda. He says it is motivated more by humanistic concern for the less privileged than by political affiliation. On a typical day, Fung can be found inside the cramped classroom with more than 20 university students and community-based workers. The main room is poorly furnished with worn-out couches, out-dated computers and shabby walls, cooled by fans rather than air-conditioning. There are no desks. Without a lecturer imparting information, participants do more asking than listening. Fung and other community workers act as mediators when they meet community groups. Recently they met to study an historical account of Sham Shui Po published by the Provisional Legislative Council in 1998. Students asked questions like 'Whose are the dominant voices? Was part of Sham Shui Po's history ignored and if so why?' and 'What was the agenda of the Legislative Council on the eve of handover?'. Stimulated by the interactive discussion, participants looked forward to their visit to Sham Shui Po residents to find out more about the community. Fung and company claim that mainstream university educators tend to see things from an authoritarian perspective, with the less well-off marginalised. Co-founder Elaine Hui Sio-eng, a former Chinese University student union president and a graduate in government and public affairs, explained: 'My courses taught me how to become a successful administration official in the government. We are led to see things mainly from the government's perspective. When talking about concepts like democracy and fairness, we hear little about grassroots voices. Even when we do, they lack a critical quality.' Fung claims that university curriculums are one-sided: 'For example,' he said, 'social theories portray unemployment as a personal failure rather than a failure of the economy.' Julian Leung Wing-yan, a former sociology student and a part-time helper with Sham Shui Po Community Association, claims that mainstream university students tend to fail to dig deeper into social problems: 'Students taking classes about social problems like crime and deviance may go into brothels and talk to prostitutes, but their action ends there.' To prepare students for interviews, the college offers role-playing exercises that teach them to see things from the point of view of the interviewee. They are penalised five dollars every time they speak an English word in their conversations with community members. Hui said: 'These organisations place trust in us. I think most of them are grateful that university students are giving them a helping hand.' The college's present appeal is restricted to a small pool of students, and with little manpower and budget they rely heavily on tutors and lecturers from social science departments of various universities for promotion. Leung said: 'We tried to advertise the idea of the co-operative at Polytechnic University but students' response was cool. They don't think a university should be a charity organisation.' Despite a total of 30 regular members from all seven Hong Kong universities, the backbone still comprises mainly Chinese University students. With only about 20 monthly donors and one-off donations, little money is left to pay staff when the monthly rent is deducted. That does not worry Fung, though. 'Money may be an issue, but never our focus,' he said. 'Yes, we need more donations. But lack of money definitely won't put a stop to our operation.' Five professors at Baptist University, Chinese University and Lingnan University have donated around $5,000 to the college, which has enabled it to publish a second collection of students' works. One of the supporters, assistant professor Dr Chan Shun-hing from the Department of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, said: 'It's an unusual combination of academic life and grassroots participation. This is rarely achieved within a formal institutional setting. I am glad the college provides room for the less privileged to voice their opinions,' she said. Another donor, associate professor Chan Kin-man, of the Department of Sociology at Chinese University, also supported the focus on grassroots issues. 'In a three-year, functional university system, students rush though their studies and seldom afford time for social movements. What the Grassroots College is doing is very worthwhile. Students can acquire a new perspective in alternative theories.' Fung criticises the more common goals of higher education. 'Education is not for the mere satisfaction of intellectual curiosity or to gain upward mobility to higher-ranking positions. We are here to help the grassroots,' he said. While there is broad support for the college's humanistic approach, not everyone agrees with its criticism of mainstream academia. Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, of the Department of Public and Social Administration at City University, rejects the claim that the formal university curriculum is one-sided: 'It is hard to judge whether scholars are looking from the authority's perspective. Scholars' intellectual discourses are not always ideological. 'Some disciplines, such as economics, require students to advise the authority on the allocation of resources. Other disciplines like social work look deeper into community development and the empowerment of ordinary people. 'There is more than one interpretation of truth in universities,' he said.