While other countries are looking to expand international student numbers, foreign enrolment at Singapore's universities will be capped at present levels while 2,000 new university places will be added for local students by 2015, so that "gradually the proportion of foreign students will come down," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loon (pictured).
Speaking at the annual National Day Rally on 14 August, often used for major policy announcements, the prime minister said international students comprised 18% of the student body at local universities and admitted that for Singaporeans "one unhappiness is the feeling that maybe foreigner students have taken the place of locals in universities".
Minister of Education Heng Sweet Keat said on Tuesday that the aim was to bring down the proportion of foreign students from 18% to about 15%.
Singapore had previously sought to increase the number of international students by 2015, including by hosting more than a dozen foreign universities.
However, there has been disquiet in Singapore that while international students in many other countries have to pay very high fees compared to local students, and often prop up university finances, in Singapore they often receive generous scholarships and subsidies.
Lee promised more scholarships and bursaries for local students and said more Malay families would be able to qualify for Singapore's tuition fee subsidy scheme in order to boost local student numbers.
"No Singaporean will be unable to attend university due to financial difficulties," he said. The prime minister admitted that the qualification criteria for the subsidy scheme had not risen for 20 years.
But in his first National Day speech since the May general election, when the influx of foreigners into Singapore was a heated issue, Lee insisted that admitting international students was not at the expense of local students. The number of places for local students has increased steadily, including by 3,000 this year, he said.
The number of local university students in Singapore's universities was 9,000 a decade years ago, is around 12,000 now and will rise to around 14,000 within four years. Lee hinted at even more places after 2015. These figures do not include all students in post-school education.
Most of the growth in local student numbers is accounted for by already-announced new university projects coming on stream in the next few years. These include a new liberal arts college in collaboration with Yale University in the US, and the new Singapore University of Technology and Design opening in 2012.
The Ministry of Education said on Monday that it had formed a review committee, headed by Minister of State for Education Lawrence Wong, to recommend ways to expand the local university sector further.
"We know we have to proceed carefully. This is not just a numbers game; it's not just about expanding heedlessly and growing university places without regard for the quality of education and employment outcomes," Wong said.
The prime minister said that with the increases in local student numbers, Singapore was on target for 30% of the school-leaving cohort to attend local universities, up from around 25% now.
"We have never had so many or so big a proportion...but even then not all those who applied got admitted and not all those who got into university got their first choice of course, because the competition for courses, the competition for places in some courses is very intense," Lee said, pointing to 2,000 applicants for 300 places at the National University of Singapore's medical school. "All of them had outstanding results.
"The economy will need more graduates...many of our students passionately want to go to university and have the grades and the capability to benefit from a university education...I think we should allow as many as possible to have that opportunity," he said.
However, Lee said it was also important to have international students in Singapore as they "helped expand Singapore's cross-border networks, increasing trade and business ties in the long run, especially those to China."
An international mix was good for Singapore but universities must strike the right balance between local and foreign student numbers, he said. "This means staying open to, yet controlling, foreign student numbers."
Education minister Heng said: "If our students do not take advantage of the diversity in our university campuses, to learn more about other cultures and to learn more about other countries, particularly in our region, then I think we are wasting a very important opportunity,".
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