Government pressed on scholarships for foreign students

Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has announced an increase in bursaries for local university students, but the government has said it cannot make cash-rich universities use more of their considerable endowments for local scholarships at particular institutions amid a row that ‘too much’ is spent on scholarships for foreign students.

Ong last month announced an increase of 36% in the amount provided by the government for higher education bursaries for local students from 2020 and may increase the amount even more in future should patterns of enrolment require it.

An additional SG$44 million (US$31.8 million) a year in bursaries would be added to the existing pot for local students, bringing the total to SG$167 million a year from the next academic year and benefiting around 55,000 Singaporeans – a projected increase of 10% in the number of existing and incoming students covered.

For university students undertaking general degree courses, these bursaries will cover up to 75% or SG$6,200 of their tuition fees, up from a current maximum of 50%.

The announcement on 22 August came after weeks of debate on the amounts spent on foreign students after a series of parliamentary questions by lawmakers who accused the government of not being transparent about the sums being spent.

Some parliamentarians suggested scholarship-funded foreign students were ‘displacing’ deserving local students amid public concerns about jobs and prosperity as Singapore is facing an economic downturn linked to the United States-China trade war.

According to official figures there were around 65,000 foreign students in Singapore in June 2018. Around 2,000 foreign students are admitted into local publicly funded universities with scholarships and tuition grants.

‘Displacing’ local students

“No Singaporean is ever displaced from an institute of higher learning because of an international student,” Ong said on 5 August, and sought to allay fears that ‘too much’ was being spent on foreign students by noting that annual government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students had “fallen by about 50% over the past 10 years”.

International students are also “a catchment” of people who can contribute to Singapore, the minister said, adding that those awarded scholarships are required to work here for at least three years after graduating.

The education ministry said last month that the proportion of foreign students defaulting on their scholarship bond obligations has been around 4% over the past three years. “The grant amount to this group of international students is about SG$5.5 million (US$4 million) annually,” the ministry said in a statement to parliament.

“We have managed to recover from a few, and we will continue to make suitable recovery efforts. For those who fail to pay their liquidated damages, we will also take actions to prevent them from working or residing in Singapore,” the ministry said.

In July Ong said in a parliamentary written answer: “The government does give out a small number of scholarships for international students in our schools and autonomous (publicly funded) universities. The total government spending for this group of international students comes up to around SG$130 million [US$94 million] a year, which is 1% of the Ministry of Education’s annual budget of SG$13 billion [US$9.4 billion]. “

“Every education system in the world will provide some support to international students, and Singaporeans are also benefiting from foreign sponsorships for their studies,” Ong said.

“Singaporeans studying overseas benefit from subsidised fees or scholarships from overseas universities as well. In fact, many European universities offer free or heavily subsidised education to all foreign students. There are around 400 Singaporean students currently studying in French and German universities, and they benefit from highly subsidised tuition fees there. So we give some and we also take some.”

But Workers' Party MP Leon Perera suggested that current spending on foreign student scholarships “seems on the high side”. He acknowledged that a certain amount of spending on foreign students was justified but “that spending has to be calibrated based on the benefits that we receive back”.

Kok Ming Cheang, a member of the People’s Voice Party, said the debates last month suggested that “the Ministry of Education has a mountain of information to hide on the subject of government awards of scholarships and tuition grants to foreign students”.

He queried the ministry figures on the amounts spent on foreign students. “Despite the fact that this scholarship and tuition grant programme has existed for over 10 years, the government has not even issued a full report on the actual amount it spent to educate the foreign students, the benefits accrued to Singapore and how much value they have added to the quality of academic performance in our universities,” he said in a post on his Facebook page.

Cheang said the government’s programme “is wrong in principle to start with”.

“Millions of dollars spent on foreign students can be better used to help and support more Singapore students to [attend] universities.

“In my view, this scholarship and tuition grant programme has more political objectives than educational,” Cheang said.

Substantial endowments

Some parliamentarians have suggested that rather than dip into the public purse to fund foreign student scholarships, universities should use their substantial endowments.

Ong said on 3 September in response to another parliamentary question that the National University of Singapore (NUS) collected SG$227 million in donations in its financial year that ended in March last year. It had reserves of SG$9.5 billion and an investment income of SG$620 million for the year.

Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper recently listed NUS as the wealthiest in Singapore in terms of philanthropic donations raised.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) had SG$3.7 billion in reserves and an investment income of SG$149 million for the same year. It raised SG$50 million in donations.

The education ministry matches donations raised. A major use of endowments is to provide scholarships and bursaries, support students’ overseas internships and other programmes.

Endowments play an important role in supplementing the government’s financial aid to needy students, Ong said.

But newer universities had much smaller endowment funds than NUS and NTU, which meant some universities were more able to use their endowments to fund students than others.

“I don't think we want to be too draconian in redistributing the endowments,” Ong said, adding that universities were already funding bursaries from their endowments but that compared to international universities “their endowment funds are not excessively large at all”.

Others pointed out that donors often stipulate the use of monies donated to universities.