By Pin-Quan Ng

In his National Day Rally address, our prime minister suggested the possibility of developing a fourth public university to meet the increasing demand for university education, perhaps in response to the recent controversy over the number of foreign students admitted to our local universities, and its underlying sentiments that Singaporeans are being treated like second-class citizens when it comes to university admissions.

A new university is a necessary but insufficient measure to address these concerns, as current university tuition subsidies are both unfair to citizens and harmful to the long-term competitiveness of our education industry, and must be reformed even if a new university is introduced.

Through the MOE Tuition Grant program, the Singapore taxpayer subsidizes up to 75% of undergraduate tuition fees at NUS, NTU, and SMU (our ‘flagship’ universities), as well as polytechnic diploma and degree programs.

Almost all of these subsidies are available to foreign students, conditional on their working in Singapore for 3 years post-graduation. Enforceability issues aside, it is no surprise that most foreign students at these schools do not pay full fees, as someone considering studying in Singapore is also likely to be considering working here. Yet the same benefit is not extended to the taxpayer himself, if he chooses to pursue his degree at any other local institutions, like SIM, SIC and MDIS, or overseas in Australia, the UK and the US. This is surely counterproductive to PM Lee’s declared aim of providing more educational opportunities for our citizens.

Some argue that since only wealthy Singaporeans choose to study elsewhere without a government scholarship, this is a non-issue. This is untrue. As PM Lee noted, more Singaporeans are qualifying for university, but the increase in demand for tertiary education has outpaced the growth in the supply of seats. Even if we factor out the increase in foreign students enrolled, more Singaporeans would have to attend other local institutions or go abroad anyway, which means that a broader socioeconomic spectrum of taxpayers is being unfairly excluded.

If subsidies are only offered at our flagship universities, this amounts to protectionism for these well-established institutions. These are not infant industries in need of state support: NUS is 102 years old while NTU is 51. As much as we would like to develop our flagship universities into world-class institutions that compete on a global scale, this should not come at the cost of crowding out other local institutions and our much-desired Global Schoolhouse entrants, and indeed it may well already have in the case of UNSW Asia. Distorting the education market with preferential subsidies is harmful to our Global Schoolhouse strategy and our economy. Instead, by leveling the playing field, competitive pressures from local and foreign institutions will drive costs down and raise the quality of education in the industry as a whole. It is time for our flagship universities to sail on their own steam.

To do so, we must reform the Tuition Grant program. First, it should be available to all who qualify, regardless of where they enroll, which would level the playing field for all students and schools. Second, it should be means-tested by family size, income and assets to exclude those who should pay full fees, whether they are wealthy citizens or foreigners, which would make more subsidies available to needy students. A progressive means-tested system is better than the current regressive system: poorer students are more likely to be rejected by the flagship universities and lose out on subsidies altogether. Even if they enroll in polytechnic diploma courses (and are thus also Tuition Grant recipients), they still pay more relative to A-level holders if they subsequently enroll in the local flagship universities or polytechnic degree programs, and even more if they attend other degree-granting institutions instead.

Reforming the program does not mean that we should cease subsidies to foreign students. Although there is a case for focusing on competitive merit-based subsidies like MOE’s ASEAN scholarship to attract top foreign students to enrich our universities, need-based subsidies attract the majority of foreign students, who may not have qualified for merit-based scholarships but still add value to our economy. The long-term economic benefits of becoming an education hub, in terms of jobs and revenue generated, far outweigh the costs of subsidies spent to attract foreign students to our Global Schoolhouse.

Perhaps we should not limit foreign enrollment at all. If they are to succeed long-term, our universities must admit students based on the value they bring to campus, and not to meet some arbitrary quota. They will then optimize each class by making tradeoffs between candidates in terms of academics, leadership potential, community involvement, extracurricular excellence, cultural diversity and expected alumni contributions – individual qualities that are only indirectly related to nationality, which both locals and foreigners can compete on. If foreign students happen to be more competitive candidates, it provides good incentives for local students to rise to the challenge.

I too am a foreign student at the US university I attend, and have witnessed first-hand the value that international students bring to the university’s culture. But if we are to displace some Singaporeans from our universities by lifting the cap on foreign enrollment, we must make the Tuition Grant program fair to citizens and provide them with the same subsidy to attend any other school of their choice. If Singapore is to become PM Lee’s City of Possibilities, let it be one of equal possibilities for all, including our own.  

About the author: Pin-Quan Ng is a sophomore at Columbia University majoring in economics and political science. His interests are in market systems, civil liberties, and international development.

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