On Mon (5 Aug) in parliament, in response to a question from WP NCMP Leon Perera, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung revealed that government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students has fallen 50% over the past decade. It is now around $238 million, which means the annual spending in 2009 would have been $476 million.
Putting this in the context of Singapore having only 4 government funded universities then (versus 6 now), the percentage spent by the government then to support foreign students versus how much it spent on supporting local students would have been very much higher than today.
In 2011 when Mr Perera’s colleague Yee Jenn Jong, also an NCMP at the time, entered Parliament, Mr Yee did ask a series of questions concerning foreign scholars sponsored by the Singapore government.
Mr Yee recalled that some of his friends teaching at the local universities were concerned about the quality of the foreign scholars Singapore was taking in.
“My friends teaching in our local universities have told me they were alarmed at the then-increasingly large number of foreign students on our government scholarships who could barely even get third class honours,” Mr Yee wrote on his blog recently.
“The cost of each foreign scholarship is high, and if we have to spend money on non-Singaporeans, then it should be on those who can really add significant quality to our education standards and to our economy.”
From further parliamentary questions, Mr Yee found out that a third of foreign scholars did not graduate with at least a second upper honours, the typical definition of a good honours.
In fact, thanks to Mr Yee’s questioning in 2013, then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat had to disclose that on average, 20 per cent of the foreign scholars obtained second lower class honours and 15 per cent graduated with either a third class honours or without honours. That is to say, some 35% of foreign scholars did not get second upper class honours or better.
Mr Yee said, “MOE later disclosed that these scholars were only expected to maintain the GPA equivalent of second lower to continue to be retained on their scholarship programme, a low benchmark indeed for a fully funded foreign scholar.”
“On various occasions, I called for this benchmark to be set higher at least at the GPA equivalent for a good honours but that was rejected by MOE. I am not sure if the benchmark has since been changed by MOE or such low expectations still exist,” he added.
Former NCMP Yee wants govt to raise benchmark for foreign scholars
Mr Yee said his motivations for raising those issues were not because he is anti-foreigners. He explained, “I have foreigner friends who have studied here on our government scholarship. Some have become Singapore citizens or PR and settled down to have children here.”
“My concern was that we were giving out foreign scholarships too liberally with too low expectations,” he said.
Mr Yee said that even though education spending on foreigners may have been cut down to $238 million currently, he thinks more details are needed as to what criteria the Singapore government is using for awarding scholarships to foreigners.
Mr Yee also noted that pre-tertiary foreign scholars are not bonded and many end up leaving Singapore after their ‘A’ level. They do not need to return to Singapore to work at all.
“Having foreign students can be good. The question is how generous we need to be, what criteria we set especially when we give out scholarships and how we enforce recipients to fulfill their bond obligations,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government seems to be sponsoring all kinds of foreign scholars regardless of their quality.