Education Minister Ong Ye Kung says international students do not deprive local students of spots in autonomous uni – Really?

In response to a question about government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students, Minister of Education Mr Ong Ye Kung said, “The core objective of our education system is to serve the needs of Singaporeans and no Singaporean is ever displaced from an institute of Higher Learning (IHL) because of international students.”

However, using the National University of Singapore (NUS) as an example, we can see that from its website that it clearly states limited vacancies in the institute due to facilities and student-to-faculty ratio for each academic year.

The website says:

“All undergraduate courses in NUS have limited vacancies. This ensures that we have sufficient facilities to support our students and maintain an optimal student-to-faculty ratio for effective teaching.”

The NUS website also provides a breakdown of the number of male and female undergraduate and postgraduate students in each academic year by course, but does not specify a breakdown of the international-local student ratio.

But if we take a look at the data on the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) website, QS notes that 7,645 out of 30,049 students in NUS are international students. Now, NUS has not disputed the figures stated by QS, since the university spokesperson was quoted in June saying that the QS ranking shows that the effort the institute has made in research and education is being highlighted.

Even so, when we look at the total number of students in NUS for the 2018/2019 academic year, it is a little higher than the QS figure, at about 39,923 students. Specifically, NUS say they have 30,093 undergraduates and 10793 post graduate students. Now, based on the slight difference in the total number of students noted by QS and NUS, we can estimate that NUS’s actual number of international students might be a little higher than QS’s figure.

All this to say, there are a limited number of spots in NUS with about 25% (calculated using figures from QS) going to international students. This ratio is similar to the ratio of international students to local students recorded by QS in Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University.

Given that we know there are a fixed number of spots in universities like NUS due to limited facilities, we can safely say that with each international student being enrolled as a student, a local student is deprived of his or her chance to obtain a degree from the local universities.

In the same Parliamentary session, Mr Ong also noted that the international students hoping to attend universities in Singapore are subject to a higher standard of admissions. He said, “In fact the process is that you apply to attend the university, you must meet a standard which is a higher one than for locals.”

But when we look at the NUS qualification standards for local and international students, we see that isn’t always the case.

For a fair comparison, we’ll take a look at the admission requirements for an international student with A Level qualification compared to that of a Singapore student with Singapore-Cambridge GCE A Level. We’re comparing these as A Levels are a recognised international qualification.

For international students applying to NUS, they need ‘a good pass in at least 3 A Level subjects’. Apart from that, they do not need SAT Subject Tests, English qualifications such as IELTS, or university entrance examinations.

On the other hand, local students need good results in three A Level subjects, Knowledge Inquiry (KI) or General Paper (GP), an A Level project work and meet the mother tongue language (MTLL) requirement (a minimum grade of O for the MTLL paper).

So as you can see, a Singapore student has to jump through more hoops to qualify for a spot in NUS compared to an international student. Not only are they competing for limited spots with Singaporeans, they have to do more to prove themselves to the universities.

Therefore, how can the minister say that Singaporean students are not deprived of a space in local universities by international students who receive scholarships or tuition grants?