Fair deal for good education

EVERY time tuition fees are revised, even by very high percentages, for courses offered at Universities and Polytechnics Grants Committee institutions, government officials are quick to fend off attacks by pointing to the local Student Finance Scheme which offers means-tested financial assistance to needy full-time tertiary students in the form of both loans to meet living expenses, and grants to cover tuition fees, faculty expenses and student union fees.

They believe the scheme ensures that no eligible student should be unable to enrol through lack of means.

The level of support under the scheme is determined by an index derived from the family's annual disposable income (ADI), which is obtained after making the permitted deductions of rent, local school fees etc, divided by the number of family members plusthe student.

Naturally, the higher the index is, the lower the amount of grant and loan a student will be awarded. The cut-off point for the eligible ADI was $30,000 last year and is being adjusted to around $35,000 this year.

Determination of eligibility for help under this mechanism hits those students hardest who are just above the cut-off ADI, and have therefore to find ways to make up for the $40,000 plus which is the maximum level of grant and loan for an applicant this year.

Students who fall through the net of direct Government help may look for some relief from the institutional financial assistance schemes and some private donations.

These are, however, relatively limited in scope and level of support. The usual financial alternative for these less fortunate students is to engage themselves in part-time jobs of one kind or another, at the expense of a fruitful life on campus.

For some reason, the present mode of student finance is unable to accurately reflect the financial position of the student and his family. Contrary to the general call for better care and support for the elderly in our community, the costs of supporting grandparents have not been fully accounted for and spread over the applicant's whole family.

While the Government is encouraging students to be more active in school and community life, there is no recognition on a full family basis of the residential costs of tertiary learners staying on campus or having to live in rented space close to their institutions for improved participation in campus activities.

SOME other improvements are worth considering if our qualified youth are to pursue to the best of their proven ability a higher education of quality. A non-means-tested and low-interest loan scheme should be introduced under the aegis of the Government and the major banking groups to benefit students who are marginally denied assistance.

It should include an advance to help students acquire, during their full course of tertiary studies, a personal computer of an acceptable functional standard. Computers are now proving indispensable for effective learning and research.

The scheduled phasing out of the United Kingdom-Hong Kong Joint Funding Scheme for Hong Kong students receiving full-time tertiary education in the UK will bring in yearly savings of $100 million which should logically be ploughed back as an investment in students to be trained at the local universities.

To sustain the growing wealth creating capability of Hong Kong, a carefully improved network of financial aid for our tertiary student population is what we can and should do to help the younger generation to fully develop their potential.

It would also fulfil the rising education expectations of the wider community after years of strenuous effort.