Rising fees cloud international hub status

Rising university fees for international students are casting a cloud over Singapore’s future as an Asian regional hub for international students – particularly from the rest of Asia. This is despite many parents in the region believing that paying for education is a good investment.

A report by the HSBC Bank The Value of Education found that families in Asia were willing to pay high fees, but recent developments in the city state have shown that tolerance levels for high fees are being reached.

Singapore is now one of the most expensive countries globally to obtain an undergraduate degree once the high cost of living in the city state is taken into account. Foreign student numbers have fallen as fees have been rising – and at a much faster rate than those for locals.

At Singapore’s top-ranked public universities, undergraduate fees for foreign students are around S$15,300 (US$12,000) for humanities and social science degrees, an increase over last year of more than 11%, compared with an 8.6% increase for Singaporeans.

The cost of a business degree or management degree has risen in the past year by as much as 15% for foreign students – to S$31,200 (US$24,500), compared with a 6% increase for Singaporeans that allows them to obtain the same degree for S$9,250 (US$7,200).

Fees for undergraduate law degrees have risen by an eye-watering 17% in the past year compared with 8% for Singaporeans, according to official figures. The fees rise coupled with high living costs has been exacerbated by a strengthening of the Singaporean currency, HSBC notes.

With undergraduate tuition fees and living costs per year combined, Singapore is second only to Australia in terms of cost among 15 major higher education destinations for foreign students.

HSBC puts Singapore at US$39,229 a year compared with US$42,000 in Australia. Comparable amounts for the US and UK are US$36,500 and US$35,000 respectively.

Drop in numbers

Despite higher fee rises for foreign students and the indication that their enrolments had dropped, Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that the amount collected in tuition fees from international students had barely increased between 2012 and 2013.

In 2013, the amount was S$176 million (US$138 million) compared with S$172 million (US$135 million) in 2012 – after jumping significantly from S$158 million (US$124 million) in 2011.

Immigration authority figures show that some 75,000 foreign student pass holders were issued in July, compared with 84,000 two years ago. The number will be even lower for university students as these figures include those attending secondary schools in Singapore.

Singapore had set itself the headline target of attracting 150,000 foreign university students by 2015 compared with about 30,000 a decade ago. But it is now clear it will fall well short of its ambitions.

The education ministry announced a drop from 18% to 15% in the proportion of places for foreign students overall in Singapore. Nonetheless, in some institutions such as the National University of Singapore, the proportion of foreign students at around 35% of the intake, has not changed since 2011.

The Economic Development Board, which has been promoting Singapore as a hub, declined to comment on whether the 2015 target of attracting 150,000 foreign students had been abandoned.

Jobs situation

Foreign students hoping to stay on after graduation also say that finding a job in Singapore has become more difficult, making it harder to justify the increased costs. Singapore has offered generous scholarships to foreign students but public funding of such scholarships has recently been questioned.

The government revealed earlier this year that foreign graduates who receive Singapore government scholarships and are bound to work in the city on graduation, were taking longer to find jobs. This had led to ‘repayment holidays’ that weigh on the public purse.

The climate has changed in the past two years and now there is rising local hostility towards immigration as jobs have become harder to find, in part due to slowing economic growth. According to official figures, overall graduate unemployment rose from 3.3% to 3.6% in the first half of 2013, higher than the average unemployment rate in Singapore of around 2%.

While no longer speaking of targets, Heng told Parliament in March only that Singapore welcomed foreign students and that it was good for local students to mix with foreign peers.

Fewer places

As part of Singapore’s desire to promote itself as an international hub for education, a number of top overseas universities have been drawn to its shores in the past decade. Almost a dozen foreign branch campuses have been established along with a large number of joint degree partnerships with international institutions.

For example, some 23 Australian institutions are offering courses in Singapore – the largest number offered by foreign universities. Around a third of the intake is comprised of foreign students.

Bringing in foreign students was one of the stated aims of Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse initiative that started in 2002 and included start-up loans and subsidies to foreign institutions to set up branch campuses.

But a tightening of regulations on foreign institutions has led to a number of international institutions shutting down, while others have abandoned Singapore, finding their operations unviable once Singaporean subsidies ended. Local Singaporean students also found the fees too high compared with local universities and overseas students failed to arrive in the numbers hoped for.

The University of New South Wales closed its Singapore branch in 2007 after just one semester after it attracted far fewer students than predicted. In July this year, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business announced it was pulling out of Singapore in favour of Hong Kong.

In November last year, Tisch Asia, New York University’s arts school, shut its Singapore branch, reportedly because of huge deficits due to high running costs, while a joint law course with NYU failed to attract enough students, even after offering scholarships.

Against these mini-disasters, the long-planned Yale-NUS, a liberal arts college, opened its doors last year and a new joint medical school with Imperial College London has come on stream, both charging high fees to international students.