Was Factually.sg factual in respect of “20% quota” and percentage of foreign students in public universities?

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament on Wednesday (Feb 28)  said that there have been 186 articles published on the Factually government website since its inception in May 2012, stating that articles on the website hosted on gov.sg are published on a “timely basis so prevailing falsehoods and misinformation are debunked as soon as possible”.

This is in response to questions filed by MP Sun Xue Ling on whether the Gov Factually website is actively being used to verify information and debunk fake news about Government policies; and whether the information on the website is updated in a timely manner.

In his reply, Mr Ibrahim noted that online rumour claimed that our public universities had reserved a minimum 20 per cent quota for foreign students when “no such policy exists”.

Going back to the Factually.sg website which “debunked” the rumor, it writes,

“Some online articles have been peddling a claim that there is a minimum 20% quota for foreign students in our Autonomous Universities, a.k.a. public universities.*

Fact: There is no such minimum quota.

While having some foreign students benefits Singaporeans (e.g., they add vibrancy to campuses, and enhance students’ global awareness and cross-cultural skills, which prepare Singaporean students for the global market place), Singapore is not actively courting foreign students to fulfil any form of minimum quota. Notwithstanding that, the best universities in the U.S., U.K., Australia and most countries have foreign students in their intake; it is part and parcel of being a world-class institute of higher learning.

It is public information that foreign students make up a small percentage of the intake at our public universities. In 2017, when replying to a Parliamentary Question on the percentage of foreigners attending our public universities, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung stated that foreign students make up only around 10% of the universities’ total intake. This remains the case today.”

NUS had 23% foreign students in 2013

In this connection, according to the article “Time for Singapore universities to admit more international students” (Today, Jan 29, 2018) – “The government has capped the number of international students in our universities since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the move in his National Day Rally speech in 2011.

Mr Lee had noted that some Singaporeans might not have been happy that foreign students could have taken the place of locals in the universities here, but added that in reality, the enrolment of foreign students was not at the expense of Singaporeans as the government had steadily increased the number of places for Singaporeans in our universities.

“By 2015 our universities will take in 14,000 Singapore students, more than ever before. But while we do this, we will cap the foreign enrolment at the present levels and therefore gradually the mix will shift and the proportion of foreign students will come down,” Mr Lee said.

As a result of the government’s policy, the proportion of foreign students in the National University of Singapore (NUS) has fallen from 23.3 per cent in 2013 to 17.3 per cent in 2017. (See table below)




31% foreign students?

However, the percentage of international students is 30 and 31 per cent for NUS and NTU respectively, according to the Times Higher Education Rankings in year 2018.

Presumably, these statistics were provided by the universities? And the rankings are publicly accepted by the universities as a gauge of their performance.

So, why are they so much higher than the 10% mentioned by Minister Ong in the Factually.sg article?

Also, note that permanent residents are not considered as international students. It was revealed in Parliament that close to 6000 students were granted PR over a course of ten years.

Target 20 percent announced by Singapore government

According to the book “The Palgrave Handbook of Asia Pacific Higher Education” – “Enrolling foreign students was also not a new idea in Singapore higher education either.

In the mid-1980s, the government had announced a target of 20 per cent for foreign undergraduate enrollments in local publicly funded universities”.

20% as a reasonable percentage of foreign students

Former President of Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tony Tan said in 1985,

As regards the percentage which the Member for Anson has asked, I stated in 1981 that I would regard a reasonable percentage for the University for foreign students to be of the order of 20%. And I would say that I make no apologies for stating the fact that I believe that this is a reasonable percentage. If we require more places for our own students at the University, then I think the solution would be to expand the NUS rather than to exclude foreign students and let our students grow up with closed minds, without the opportunity, as I have said, to interact with other students.

In 1988, Dr Tan again noted of the 20 percent quota set by the Ministry of Education for foreign students,

“Sir, in 1985 I mentioned that I would regard a reasonable percentage of foreign students in the University to be of the order of 20%. As Members can see from the schedule, in 1986 and 1987 the number of foreign students admitted as a percentage of the total number admitted has, in fact, been much lower. For 1986 the figure was 15%; 1987 even lower, 13%. If this percentage continues to decline, I would regard it as a something to worry about and something which has to be taken up by the Ministry and the University.”

With Dr Tan’s comment on behalf of the Ministry of Education, the figures shown in the international university rankings and past records, Factually.sg may not be that factual after all.