MOE says 1.8% of budget spent on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students – that’s about 9% of what is spent on universities

Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung said in Parliament (5 August) that the government spent about $238 million in scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students. The Education Minister revealed that of the S$238 million, the government spends about $130 million on scholarships and about S$108 million on tuition grants for foreign students.

In his replies to questions from Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Leon Perera on government expenditure on foreign students, Mr Ong emphasised that his ministry’s annual budget of about S$13 billion is “overwhelmingly spent on Singaporean students”, noting that government spending on international students – specifically for scholarships and tuition grants – has fallen by about 50% in the last decade.

Let’s take a moment to unpack that.

Going by Mr Ong’s statement about government spending on scholarships and tuition grants having declined by 50% in 10 years, that indicated that back in 2009, the government’s annual expenditure on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students would have been approximately S$476 million.

Basically, 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.

We’ll note that 10 years ago, there were only four government funded universities: National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Management University (SIM). This means that the government was spending a significantly higher amount on foreign students 10 years ago.

Taking a closer look at MOE’s budget in 2009, the government estimated and expenditure of about S$1.72 billion for those four universities specifically. So the S$476 million spent on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students in 2009 is about 27.7% of what the government budgeted for universities in that same year.

In 2019, there are currently six autonomous universities: NUS, NTU, SMU, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). According to MOE’s 2019 budget, the estimated expenditure for these six institutes come up to approximately S$2.64 billion. So S$238 million for scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students is about 9% of the governments estimated expenditure for universities in 2019.

We have to note that MOE does not specify exactly how much it spends on scholarships and tuition grants in its annual expenditure estimates.

But if you get right down to it, the government’s expenditure on foreign students comes up to about 9% when compared to its university budgets in 2019. And in 2009 when government spending on foreign students was double the amount it is now, that figure was about 27.7%. Clearly, that’s very high.

While of course in recent years, the government has decreased its spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students rather significantly, there is still some concern that spending S$238 million on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students is still too high as compared to what it is spending to help local students to obtain their higher education.

This is especially when parents such as 60-year-old father, Lim Koh Leong who unsuccessfully tried to withdraw monies in his CPF account to cover his daughter’s education fees, try means and ways to help finance their children’s further education in hope that their children can have a better chance in life.

This is especially concerning given that Mr Ong himself says MOE does not have any data to indicate whether spending this amount on foreign students has had a positive impact on Singapore. Mr Ong merely stated in parliament that “we know this has been beneficial to Singapore” while at the same time inviting the academia to study the matter as the government currently does not have the information.