PROFESSOR TAM Sheung-wai beat more than 100 contenders to land the job of president of what was then the Open Learning Institute eight years ago, leaving the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he was a pro-vice-chancellor, to promote education for adult learners. Prior to his retirement this month, the 69-year-old spoke with satisfaction at the rapid development of what is now the Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK), the university that gives a second chance to those who have missed out on higher education. 'Anyone can try to do a degree course at our institution,' he said. OUHK under his leadership has also played a key role in popularising the concept of distance education. Since its establishment in 1989, OUHK has produced 22,000 graduates, out of 120,000 enrolled. It was upgraded to a university in 1996. It also has credit transfer agreements with eight foreign institutions, and has won accolades from the international community. 'It has established itself as one of the leading distance learning institutions in the world,' Tam said. Yet he said his major disappointment had been the constant neglect of the institution locally, even by the government. 'The media has always made reference to the eight publicly-funded institutions, without including us. There is a similar perception among the general public that universities mean only the government-funded ones,' Tam said. 'It is contradictory to the public perception that one of the eight UGC-funded institutions is not yet a university.' OUHK's request for a $200 million government grant to extend its campus has fallen on deaf ears. Although its original campus was built with public money, it has been self-financing since 1993. But Tam takes comfort from employers' improving perception of the Ho Man Tin-based institution. OUHK has an open access policy with no minimum entrance requirements. In its early days, employers were sceptical about its distance-learning programmes. 'Employers wondered how much our students could learn studying part-time in the evening or weekends. Time was needed to change people's perceptions,' said Tam, stressing OUHK adopts the same stringent graduation standards as other institutions. Today, 105 companies, including the MTR Corp, Sun Hung Kai Properties and PCCW, are part of OUHK's employer study support scheme, under which their employees are entitled to a 10 per cent discount on tuition fees. 'The success of the scheme shows increased employers' confidence in our graduates,' said Tam, a former president of the Christian Universities and Colleges in Asia. He stressed the quality of education offered by his institution, with its course materials put together by panels of experts drawn from local and overseas institutions. 'External examiners or assessors who compared our course standards with others said ours were up to standard,' he said. OUHK's key role was to provide an alternative for working adults, he said. 'We are comparing ourselves with overseas counterparts such as the Open University in Britain and the Korean National Open University, and not research institutions here,' he said. 'We provide a start-up opportunity for people so they can move up the career ladder. On the other hand, there are also a great majority who just want to enrich themselves. Many would like to learn for the sake of personal interest, not job promotion.' OUHK has also stepped up its role in adult and sub-degree education through its Li Ka Shing Institute of Professional and Continuing Education (LiPACE), set up in 2000, which will launch a self-learning programme for women at grassroots level next March jointly with the Commercial Radio and the Women's Commission. Tam conceded there could be limited room for development in distance education locally. 'Some people may never accept it, preferring regular face-to-face tuition instead. 'Distance education may also be a problem, especially for those without self-discipline. Hong Kong is a small place, people can attend classes easily, not like in vast countries such as Australia or Canada.' That is one reason OUHK is expanding in the mainland, where Tam expects rapid growth in enrolments in programmes such as MBAs, education, Chinese law and translation with local partners in 22 cities. There are about 3,000 mainland graduates so far. 'Distance education should not be confined to one city. It can reach out to a vast number of foreign students, not like conventional universities where there is a limit to the number of foreign students accepted,' he said. One new task ahead for Tam will be to chair the new Ping Wo Fund, a charitable trust fund set up by the government to finance measures to assist problem gamblers, after soccer betting was legalised during the summer. He will also remain chairman of the management committee of St Paul's Co-educational College where he is known as 'an adopted son'. Tam has maintained close ties with the school, though he took only one course at St Paul's when he was a student at Diocesan Boys' School. Then there is the Council for World Mission - Nethersole Fund, which carries out evangelical, medical and educational work in Hong Kong and mainland, of which he is also chairman. 'I support lifelong learning. I have been learning all my life through work,' he said.