We recently wrote about the government spending approximately S$238 million on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students attending schools and autonomous universities in Singapore.
Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament that of the S$238 million, about S$130 million is spent on scholarships for foreign students in schools and autonomous universities while another S$108 million is spent on tuition grants for foreign students. Mr Ong was responding to questions by Worker’s Party MP Leon Perera on government expenditure on foreign students.
In his reply, Mr Ong also noted that government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students has fallen by about 50% in the last decade. Taking that into account, that means back in 2009, the government’s annual expenditure on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students would have been approximately S$476 million.
So in 2019 the government spent about 1.8% of MOE’s budget on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students while in 2009, it was about 5.4% of MOE’s budget.
Defending the government’s expenditure, Mr Ong said that attracting foreign students to Singapore is beneficial to Singaporean students as they can build bridges and expand their network. He also said that foreign students form a catchment of people who could potentially contribute to Singapore as they enter the workforce here and perhaps even sink roots and take up citizenship or permanent residency.
Mr Ong explained, “Today international students in IHLs [institutes of high learning] who are awarded scholarships are required to work in Singapore for at least three years after they graduate. Many eventually sink roots, take up permanent residency or citizenship, or raise their families here.”
For those who choose not to stay after fulfilling their obligation to work in Singapore for three to six years after graduating, Mr Ong says “they can be part of our valuable global network of fans and friends who can speak up for Singapore from time to time and forge collaborations with Singapore.”
He added that other countries also do the same by offering generous scholarships to foreign students, which many Singaporeans have benefited from as well. Mr Ong noted that IHL’s in Singapore cannot depart from this international practice norm of offering scholarships to foreign students and that it has to be part of this global education network.
However, when we look at the scholarships that the Australian government offers to foreign students, there is a stark difference in that scholarship recipients cannot stay in Australia for two years after the scholarship ends.
Students are offered scholarships under the Australia Award to learn new skills which they can apply to help develop their home country and are expected to return home after completing their course.
This is in contrast to foreign students receiving government scholarship in Singapore who are obliged to stay on and work in Singapore for three to six years as part of the condition of their scholarship.
So really, the Australian government offers scholarships as a form of diplomacy while the Singapore government offers scholarship as a way to court foreign talent into the country and have them tied down to working in Singapore for a number of years, hoping that they will end up choosing to stay on permanently.
In terms of funding, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade notes that the Australian government allocated about $305 million (S$283.51 million) for the Australia Awards in 2019. That’s roughly the same as Singapore for a country much larger.
In the United Kingdom, the British government offers the popular Chevening Scholarship which essentially has the same purpose as the scholarships offered by the Australian government – for foreign students to learn a skill which they can put to use in their own country upon graduation.
In 2009, the British government allocated £23.6 million (S$39.76 million) for the Chevening Scholarships while in 2019, they allocated £28 million (S$47.17 million). The scholarship is awarded to international students who wish to study in the UK on the condition that they must return to and stay in their home country for at least two years following the completion of their scholarship.
Moving to Asia, the Japanese Government offers the MEXT Scholarship which comes under the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (NEXT). The scholarship is available in seven categories including research students, undergraduate students, and professional training college students. While MEXT in general aims to support foreign students who study in higher education institutions in Japan, one of the programmes under MEXT is the Young Leaders’ Program (YLP). The YLP aims to contribute to the cultivation of future national leaders in Asian and other countries, similar to the goals of the Chevening Scholarship and Australia Awards mentioned above.
According to MEXT, the government allocated ¥34.4 billion (S$447 million) for their entire scholarship program in 2019.
We note here that Japan is a country with 125 million citizens, spending about S$447 million on scholarships for international students. On the other hand, Singapore is a country of only 3.5 million citizen but spends roughly S$238 million on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students. In other words, a country that is only 2.7% the size of Japan spends over 50% of what Japan does on scholarship for international students.
Looking at all these together, it’s clear that while Mr Ong might stress that Singapore is merely doing what other countries do, we can see that for such a tiny country, Singapore does spent significantly more money on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students than other countries do.
On top of that, the motivation that’s driving the Singapore government to provide scholarships to foreign students seems to differ to that of these other countries. Where Australia, Japan, and the UK want to foster bilateral relationships and help build up skills and talents for students to use back in their home countries, Singapore is seeking to entice foreign students into staying in Singapore on a more permanent basis and use their developed skills here instead.