A Balancing Act – dissecting the issue on foreign scholars and tuition grants

Two days ago in parliament in response to my WP colleague NCMP Leon Perera, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung revealed that government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students fell 50% over the past 10 years. It is now around $238 million, which means the annual spending around 2009 would have been $476 million. Put this in the context of Singapore having only 3(#) government funded universities then (versus 6 now), the percentage spent by the government then to support foreign students versus how much it spent on supporting local students would have been very much higher than today.

When I entered parliament in 2011, this was one of the issues I dug into immediately. I had met many Singaporeans whose children were not able to enter our local universities because of the limited number of places. Many went into private universities here or abroad. I had filed a question in parliament in 2011 to first gather some facts.  There were then 41,000 Singaporeans enrolled in private universities and private education institutions (PEIs). This number did not include Singaporeans studying in universities abroad because the government did not track the data. Add this group of overseas Singapore students in and the number of Singaporeans seeking private tertiary education would be even higher.

In any case, 41,000 was a very high figure considering our yearly cohort of Singaporeans of university-going age by birth was then around 45,000-50,000 . It showed the aspiration for higher learning was very big but places were very limited. The cost for private education, whether done here or abroad is steep and beyond the means of many ordinary Singaporeans. It was only later that the government decided to expand the number of places for local students and supported an additional two more universities – UniSIM (now SUSS) and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

My friends teaching in our local universities had told me that they were alarmed at the then-increasingly large number of foreign students on our government scholarships who could barely even get third class honours. The cost of each foreign scholarship is high, and if we have to spend money on non-Singaporeans, then it should be on those who can really add significant quality to our education standards and to our economy.

Data was scant, so I began a series of probe into this issue. I asked in February 2012 about the number of foreign scholars in Singapore and the amount spent on them, only to be told that the government gave out 320 scholarships to ASEAN students yearly. I followed up again the next month with another questions about non-ASEAN scholars and was given a figure of 1,700 scholars a year. That meant 2,000+ foreign scholarships a year, multiplied by their disclosed rate of $18,000 spent annually on average per scholar. What MOE did not disclose was that scholarships given out would be valid for the duration of the studies here as long as the scholar continued to meet MOE’s criteria, which would typically be 4 years. The cost of foreign scholarships given out annually would have worked out to be at least $144 million a year then.

Next was whether we were giving scholarships to foreigners that are of good quality enough to add to the vibrancy of our education system. From further parliamentary questions, I found out that a third of foreigners on our undergraduate scholarships did not graduate with at least a second upper honours, the typical definition of a good honours. MOE later disclosed that these scholars were only expected to maintain the GPA equivalent of second lower honours to continue to be retained on their scholarship programme, a low benchmark indeed for a fully funded foreign scholar. On various occasions, I called for this benchmark to be set higher to at least at the GPA equivalent for a good honours but that was rejected by MOE. I am not sure if the benchmark has since been changed by MOE or such low expectations still exist.

My motivations for raising those issues were not because I am anti-foreigners. I have foreigner friends who have studied here on our government scholarships. Some have become Singapore citizens or PR and settled down to have children here. My concern was that we were giving out foreign scholarships too liberally with too low expectations. Yes, other foreign universities do give out scholarships to Singaporeans but for Singaporeans to qualify on those same generous terms given by MOE, surely they are expected to do better than second lower honours. We take pride that our most established universities, NUS and NTU now rank in the top globally with the USA Ivy league universities and UK’s Oxford and Cambridge. Surely when these elite universities give scholarships to Singaporeans, they expect much higher of us.

I was also concerned about the high amount spent with weak efforts to enforce their fulfillment of bonds, whether for scholars or for tuition grant holders. The figure revealed by Minister Ong is that 4% of tuition grant awardees are in default currently. I believe the figure was higher earlier until MOE decided to step up enforcement.

In any case, $476 million spent annually ten years ago was definitely far too high. Post GE2011, the government had realised the flaws in their earlier policies on foreign students and started the reversal. Singaporeans had spoken loudly enough to be heard. In the earlier rush to boost foreign student numbers, some secondary schools with boarding facilities were asked to ram up their hostel places. There are some deserted hostel blocks today in these schools, legacy of this failed policy. We may have cut the spending down to $238 million now but I think more details are needed as to what criteria we use for awarding scholarships and whether we expect scholars to remain in Singapore to contribute to us economically. Pre-tertiary students are not bonded and about half of them do not end up continuing their tertiary education in Singapore. They do not need to return to Singapore to work as well when they graduate.

Having foreign students can be good. The question is how generous we need to be, what criteria we set especially when we give out scholarships and how we enforce recipients to fulfill their bond obligations.

#Correction: My original post stated 4. SUTD started exactly in 2009. There were only NUS, NTU and SMU 10 or more years ago.