Foreign unis & foreign students – are we striking the right balance?

By Leong Sze Hian

Despite a heated debate in the media and calls by the public for EDB to reveal how much of taxpayer’s money has been lost due to the UNSW closure, EDB chose to remain silent.

I find it somewhat embarrassing to first find out the amount by reading the Singapore media, quoting the Australian media.

Since Parliament was assured that UNSW “has to pay back the money because it did not meet the ‘agreed milestones’”, why did it take 2 months, and only when the question was tabled in Parliament, to disclose that $32.3 million was given to UNSW ?

The damage to Singapore’s reputation in the international media over the last 2 months could have be avoided, had this been disclosed earlier.

Perhaps the lesson for organizations when a project fails, in the context of media relations, is to accede to media requests at the onset, for more information on the timeline and events that transpired, rather than being riled into piece-meal rebuttals in response to foreign media reports. In this instance, it would appear that the rebuttal has only been reported in the local media. Therefore, the damage to Singapore’s reputation as a global school house, may already be done.

Not the first time

This is not the first time that such a similar embarrassment of not disclosing when something runs foul, has occurred. An almost replica of the sequence of “not telling”, but then in a sense, being compelled to “tell more”, happened in the Johns Hopkins-A*Star project termination.

Last year’s Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) report on the Auditor-General’s (AG) audit of EDB in the fiscal year prior, revealed that this is the first time that the AG has audited the EDB since its formation in 1961.

In particular, the audit found that a sum of $ 105 million allocated in “the EDB’s 2005/06 budget was not submitted to the EDB’s board for approval, the EDB board had also allowed staff to grant loans and to borrow without reporting back to the board, and there were a large number of observations in which the board had not established proper internal control procedures.

This raises the question of who checks on the AG? Why did it not audit the EDB for the last 46 years ? Why do we need to give so much money to attract foreign universities to set up shop in Singapore? How appropriate is this strategy for growing Singapore into a global school house?

Against this backdrop, we appear to have been stinging on educational spending for Singaporeans, as manifested by the following events reported in the media, in chronological order :

1. March 2007 – The PAP Community Foundation (PCF) announced plans to shut down five of the remaining 15 Community Children’s Libraries (CCL) to save $ 30,000 in operating costs per CCL. There used to be 46 such libraries in 2000, and all CCLs are likely to be closed eventually.

2. January 2007 – The Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) recipients increase from about 15,000 in 2005 to 35,000 in 2006. This dramatic rise of 20,000 more needy students getting help was due to its qualification criteria the year before being more stringent.

3. October 2006 – The question of spending on foreign students relative to Singaporeans is raised in the media – How may scholarships to foreigners relative to Singaporeans? Against this backdrop of spending on education for foreigners, less than 20 per cent of needy Singaporean students were successful when more than 1,000 applied for an annual bursary of about $ 1,500 from a local university in 2004, which sparked an outcry among some alumni in the newspaper forums.

4. September 2006 – The LKY School of Public Policy is the “World’s fastest growing public policy school” – 85 per cent of the students are foreigners on scholarships.

So, are we having the right balance, between spending on foreign universities and foreign students, relative to our own sons and daughters?

For more of Sze Hian’s writings, please visit

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