School’s Out: How Singapore Keeps University Reserved for the Elites

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Chasing foreign money

Indeed, while the government aims to restrict Singaporeans’ access to public universities, the government has been courting international students to study at local universities.

After being prodded by an opposition politician, then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat revealed that in 2012, “International Students and Permanent Residents comprised 16% and 5% of the universities’ intake respectively.” Heng also revealed that, “The proportion of [international students] varies by faculty, ranging from around 1% in Medicine and Law,” to even as high as “27% in Science and Engineering,” which he said were “courses highly popular with Singaporeans.” However, in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017, their statistics contradicted the government’s. The rankings showed that both of Singapore’s top universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), have international student populations at 32 percent of their student population, which puts Singapore as having the 60th largest international student population out of the 980 top universities in the world.

If the government so believes that Singaporeans should not be able to receive higher education because of its wants to prevent a “glut of graduates in Singapore” as Ong said, then the government’s allowance of such a high proportion of international students to be able to attend local public universities seems to be a contradiction, especially so since Heng also said that, “international students who receive tuition grants are required to work in a Singapore-based company for three years upon graduation to supplement our labour force.”

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On The Straits Times Facebook page where news of the capping of local students’ access to public universities was first shared, commenter Marc Wang said: “We limit our own local-born from […] tertiary education because there [are] not enough graduate jobs, but open the doors wide for foreign-born graduates to work in Singapore.

“Wonder if that make sense,” he asked. His sentiment is one that resonated with most Singaporeans – his comment was the top-liked comment, which at the time of writing, had 337 likes.

But the government’s restrictions on Singaporeans’ access to public universities is not the only reason Singaporeans are up in arms. It is also how the scholarships are given.

In 2012, then-Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education Sim Ann revealed that, “on average [from 2001 to 2011], about 800 pre-tertiary and 900 undergraduate international students (IS) are offered scholarships […] The annual cost is about S$14,000 for each pre-tertiary scholarship, and between S$18,000 and S$25,000 for each undergraduate scholarship.” Opposition politician Yee Jenn Jong later pursued the question further, leading Heng to say in 2015 that, “the annual number of scholarships awarded to international students at the undergraduate level has come down in recent years. Since 2012, about 900 such scholarships are awarded each year.” However, this contradicts the previous reply – the scholarships have not come down, in fact the government has been consistently giving out 900 scholarships to undergraduate international students since 2001, as Sim’s answer before bears out. Heng added that, “The annual cost per scholarship is about $25,000 on average,” which adds up to S$22.5 million a year of undergraduate scholarships for international students. Given that each student could study up to four years, and where “less than 2% of international scholars have had their scholarships terminated,” Yee calculated that the total amount could add up to S$90 million in a year.

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