Saturday, 30 September 2023

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Students seeking more financial aid from NTU say foreign students are not the enemy

by Adi

I am an Economics and Engineering student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and a member of NTU Financial Aid Friends, a group of NTU students who believe that urgent changes need to be made in NTU’s Financial Aid system to improve access to the public education we deserve.

To learn more about our campaign, visit our Instagram page or read coverage of our campaign by The Online Citizen, TodayOnline, and Mothership.

I refer to Leong Sze Hian’s article for The Online Citizen titled “NTU students’ struggle with financial aid: One in three in distress amid $238M expenditure on foreign students and 4.1% real tuition fee increase”.

I respond to the main thrust of Leong’s article, which argues that spending on foreign students’ subsidies, tuition grants, and scholarships is partly responsible for why local NTU students cannot afford to go to school.

NTU Financial Aid Friends strongly disagrees with this slant, which seems to pit locals against foreigners. We feel that a lack of access to public education is something which is keenly felt by both local and international students.

Furthermore, we feel that framing the issue in this manner distracts from the real structural issues which cause this lack of access, including inadequate Financial Aid, inflexible Tuition Grant conditions and many other barriers which prevent students from receiving their right to education.

Our campaign centres around seven key issues which we identified from talking to many of our fellow schoolmates, some of whom are Permanent Residents (PRs) and international students.

One of these key issues involves processes for international students.

Firstly, nearly all needs-based bursaries for undergraduates are restricted to Singaporeans and PRs, and only less than a quarter of donated bursaries do not mention local status as a requirement.

This means that international students which require assistance to fund their education in NTU must rely almost entirely on merit-based scholarships, which are extremely selective and come with restrictive terms and conditions.

Even if an international student chooses to take on a tuition loan to avoid high interest rates while financing the cost of their tuition fees, the guarantor process for international students is unreasonably difficult.

International students must find a Singaporean / PR guarantor and undergo complex processes which many students find impossible to complete when they first arrive in Singapore.

A main point of contention which is often raised about how public funds are used to subsidise the cost of education for international students and PRs is the MOE Tuition Grant.

The Tuition Grant effectively halves the cost of tuition for international students and reduces it to a third for PRs.

At first glance, this seems incredibly generous and a large use of public resources. However, the Tuition Grant comes with a contractual obligation to work in a Singapore entity, often in Singapore, for three years upon graduation.

For international students, as of September 2023, working in Singapore means needing to qualify for either an Employment Pass or an S Pass.

Employment Passes require a minimum qualifying salary of S$5,000 in managerial, executive or specialised jobs while passing a highly restrictive assessment framework (COMPASS).

This almost necessarily excludes many normal entry-level jobs open to fresh undergraduates. In the case of S Passes, while the minimum qualifying salary is S$3,000, which is lower, the number of S Pass jobs is limited by foreign-to-local ratio quotas and increasingly high levy costs.

There is no doubt that the contributions these graduates make towards Singapore’s economy far outweigh the public spending which goes into subsidising their tuition fees, given the nature of their jobs and the length of their bond.

Additionally, the terms associated with violating the conditions of the bond are severe because the entire liquidated damages must be repaid with a compounding interest rate of 10% per annum.

When we compare this to the terms of the exact same MOE Tuition Grant for a Singaporean like myself, we see that the terms are much more relaxed, given that we do not have to serve a bond. Most strikingly, the Tuition Grant subsidises our fees by a whopping three-quarters of the total amount.

To illustrate the difficulties foreign students face with financing their tuition fees, I would like to share the story of my friend Casey, an international student from the same Engineering course as me, whose family comes from a similar working-class background.

Both of us received the MOE Tuition Grant, but upon graduation in 2021, Casey struggled greatly with finding a job despite having an attractive Engineering degree and competitive grades.

Casey had just graduated during the pandemic when the job market practically grinded to a halt. During this time, finding a suitable job that paid higher than the qualifying wage and was willing to hire foreigners, amid tightening measures by the government not to accept Employment and S Pass applications from “high-risk” countries, was almost impossible.

After more than two years of trying to find a job while regularly renewing her Long Term Visit Pass, Casey has to pay the full cost of her bond including interest – an incredibly large amount which will land her into devastating debt.

Despite clauses in the Tuition Grant contract which state that waivers in the event of extenuating circumstances are possible, her appeals, given the job market in the pandemic, were rejected.

At this stage, the cost of the debt which she will incur is higher than the cost of the original unsubsidised tuition fees, which her family was not able to afford in the first place.

In comparison, during the duration of my degree, I paid a much lower sum of tuition fees, and upon graduation, I will not have to be bonded or repay any damages the way that Casey does.

International graduates like Casey want to serve their tuition bond, but often cannot due to the difficulty of finding jobs which fulfil criteria, especially during economic downturns.

There are many other ways that foreign students face precarity and lack of access, which local students often do not.

For example, during the height of the pandemic in 2021, thousands of international students who relied upon on-campus accommodation as their only affordable housing option were evicted, and the school gave them only two weeks’ notice to vacate.

This happened again in 2022, and once more, NTU gave an unreasonably short period of notice. Some had to fork out tens of thousands of dollars to obtain housing on the private rental market at the last minute.

I even personally know friends who effectively became homeless because they simply could not afford or did not have enough time, to find housing.

Many NTU students can recount anecdotes of Dean’s Listers and scholarship recipients who were found sleeping in tutorial rooms and computer labs. To add insult to injury, NTU had the gall to send out emails threatening hall-dwellers who let their friends stay over in their rooms with fines, eviction or expulsion.

In recent years, hall fees have increased by an annual rate of more than 10%, while food prices on campus have rocketed due to the rapid pace of inflation. It is becoming increasingly untenable for international students to survive the cost of education at NTU.

So, if international students are not the ones to blame for unaffordable education, then what is? We identified the following, in addition to the issues which international students face:

  • Unclear communication,

  • A lack of transparency,

  • Inflexible accommodations for extenuating circumstances,

  • Timeline issues,

  • An inadequate online system, and

  • Inadequate bursary amounts.

Most concerningly, NTU seems to disburse the lowest amount of guaranteed needs-based bursaries compared to the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU).

Across all public universities, the Ministry of Education (MOE) guarantees a subsidy of up to 75% of tuition fees for Singaporean students via the Higher Education and Higher Education Community Bursary.

Similar to the NUS Bursary and SMU Access / SMU Study Award, NTU also advertises its own school bursary, the NTU Bursary.

However, unlike NUS’ and SMU’s school bursaries, no eligibility criteria for the NTU Bursary is published on the website. Curiously, after speaking to close to 50 students (some of whom have household incomes of $0), we were unable to find a single student who received the NTU Bursary.

During our meeting with the NTU administration, they only stated that the NTU Bursary is disbursed to students in dire financial circumstances. NTU neglected to state any concrete requirements or disbursement amounts.

Only after our campaign had gained some traction were we able to come into contact with Budy Hartono, a Singaporean student who received the NTU Bursary. Despite his PCHI being $0, and several extenuating circumstances (including housing insecurity, caregiving duties and recurring medical expenses), he only received $1,300 worth of NTU Bursary on top of his Higher Education Community Bursary, meaning he was $700 short of the sum of his tuition fees.

In comparison, the total bursary amount received for a student in a comparable course in NUS would fully subsidise his tuition fees and disburse an additional S$6,450 on top of it! At SMU, he would have the full cost of his tuition fees covered, despite SMU’s higher tuition costs.

Why does NTU disburse such a low amount of bursaries? This is puzzling, to say the least, given that NTU has the second largest endowment fund in Singapore, with a reported sum of $2.75 billion as of 2022.

One of the main purposes of this endowment fund, which is largely derived from government funding, includes providing bursaries and scholarships to keep public education affordable.

In addition, NTU directs a large amount of resources towards sourcing donations from alumni, many of whom donate willingly because they trust that their donations will be channelled towards students who need it the most.

One option for where donations can go is the “NTU Bursary Fund” — if so many resources seem to be channelled towards these funds, why don’t NTU students see the results?

NTU counters our arguments by stating that more than 200 donated bursaries are available, but these donated bursaries often have additional eligibility criteria which reduce the chances of receiving bursaries given one’s co-curricular activities, grades and degree programmes.

Furthermore, donated bursaries are not guaranteed given a student’s household income the way that school bursaries should be.

It becomes clear that international students, Singaporeans and PRs have a lot more in common with each other in our struggles to afford our education than we have been led to believe.

Our interests do not lie in opposition to each other. Conversely, our strength is magnified when we stand united. NTU Financial Aid Friends was founded on the principle of the right to education, and we continue to advocate for that right.

Foreign students are just as deserving of a quality tertiary education as any other. The focus of Financial Aid Friends’ current advocacy is to demand accountability and transparency from the administrative bodies of NTU.

We recognise that the conditions which cause us to be unable to access NTU’s public education are the same, regardless of nationality, even if they manifest in different ways.

Financial Aid Friends have and will stand for the right of ALL students to receive an affordable tertiary education. Regardless of nationality, we stand united in our fight for accessible education for all.

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