In a parliamentary speech on Tuesday (May 15), Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung identified education as one of the means for upward social mobility.
The first-term MP said it was a “national priority” to tackle inequality and this could be done by “[bridging] the gap between the rich and the under privileged through education so that more Singaporeans are able to succeed.” The government had previously “ensured universal access to good general education, which uplifted the population”.
The Minister acknowledged that families who are better-off today were “able to pass down the privileges… through better coaching, enrichment classes, and exposure to the world”. He said that the government would also “remove barriers erected by financial difficulty” and there is “and better support that is available now” for those who would not afford it.
Thanks to such support, “many students who would [otherwise] have dropped out of school, were able to continue to be engaged in their studies”. He cited an example on how children from lower-income families who stayed in 3-room (and below) flats, “more than half did move up to diploma or degree programmes”.
Moving forward, the government would aim to “develop even more pathways and opportunities within our education and training system”.
Locals are willing to sacrifice their retirement for their children's education while Govt's stance is not all citizens should pursue a degree
According to a Straits Times article in 2016, Singaporean parents spend $21,000 a year (or twice the global average) on their child's university education. More than half were willing to go into debt to pay for their children’s education and would even prioritise this over paying their bills or saving for retirement. According to OCBC, the average amount of such loans range from $20,000 to $25,000. Such loans are often as a result of students pursuing a degree outside of Singapore's Autonomous Universities (AU), as no tuition grant is available.
A 2017 ST report revealed that the two new AU, Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) received 14,000 applications for 2,600 places in 41 degree courses and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) received 4,900 applications for 580 places in eight degree courses. The over-subscription of the two universities shows the continued desire for many students to further their studies and obtain a degree.
Other than full-time students, SUSS also holds 13,200 part-time students enrolled in 60 part-time courses, ranging from counselling to accounting, with more than 5,000 applications a year from working adults and mature students who want to pursue a degree. This shows the desire of many Singaporeans to pursue further studies.
However, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has cautioned Singaporeans from pursuing a degree for the sake of one, famously saying in 2013 that "You own a degree, but so what? You can't eat it. If that cannot give you a good life, a good job, it is meaningless."
Former Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat also said in Parliament in 2014 that like in other countries such as in Europe, "the highest qualifications will do a person no good, if there are no good jobs available in the first place.”*
He related the example of a student who has spent much time and effort in getting a degree from a private school only to realise later that her employer found her degree irrelevant to the job she was doing, and paid her the same salary as an entry-level diploma holder.
Mr Heng thus advised Singaporeans to look beyond qualifications and and recognise that there are other attributes which matter in striving for success. These include the right attitude, deep skills, knowledge and experience.
In 2017, Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, Low Thia Khiang proposed to the government to set up a SkillsFuture Education Loan to facilitate further and continuing education that will help workers to advance their careers or to switch career paths, pointing the limitations of the existing CPF Education scheme.
In response, Mr Ong said, "For someone taking a Diploma programme in a Polytechnic or a Degree programme in an Autonomous University (AU), study loans and tuition fee loans provided by the institutions are available to them. Maybe this is not well known by them, but even if you are an adult worker taking a part-time Degree or Polytechnic courses, the loans are available to them. Hence, the CPF Education scheme is only one option."
MOE gives $210 million in subsidies to foreign students
In 2014, Worker’s Party MP Png Eng Huat asked the Minister for Education in a Parliamentary question the percentage of foreign students who were receiving tuition grants, and the total amount given to them. The then-Minister Heng Swee Keat replied that it was 13% in Universities (down from 18% earlier in 2010) while amount spent was about $210 million. Roy Ngerng in his blog estimated that if one were to include the scholarships along with the tuition grant, the amount can go up to $400 million.
While this may be a small percentage relative to MOE’s behemoth budget, it remains quite baffling that a small country with two of Asia’s top universities would such a huge amount on foreign students. This confusion is increased when the Minister has identified the importance of education for Singaporeans and the amount could be better spent on locals who have their own set of struggles.
The ROI on such scholarships are also questionable. A Wikileaks cable dated 2009, stated that many foreign talent “use Singapore as a stepping stone and depart for greater opportunities abroad”. One such example was Leo Ou Chen and Steven Liu, 2 classmates at Nanyang Technological University who eventually moved to Stanford where they co-founded online cosmetics retailer Jumei. The company got listed and netted this made them amongst Asia's youngest Billionaires.
Barely 7 years later, an Auditor General Office report noted that there was some $40 million that was disbursed to the scholarship schemes for foreign students in the financial year 2014/2015. The Auditor-General noted that the MOE had not done anything to seek liquidated damages or compensation from scholars who failed to serve their bonds.
No doubt, such generosity to foreign students come with a heavy opportunity cost - local students who were displaced out of a place in a university in their home country. Yet this does not deem to be subsidising. Furthermore, as all foreign students who receive tuition grant are required to work in Singapore for three years, many who will take up jobs even at a lower rate to avoid paying the high liquidated damages.
For many local graduates who cannot find jobs, this seems to be a contradicting policy to ensure employment.
While we should not remain xenophobic and continue to invite true talent to our shores, do you think that more could be done for Singaporeans?
*Editor's note - While Heng's view is correct, but what are the choices for Singaporeans when jobs that do not require degrees are depressed by foreign labour?