Workers’ Party politician Yee Jenn Jong has pointed out that the Government used to spend around S$476 million on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students, in a blog post published today.

Mr Yee’s post comes on the back of questions his colleagues, WP Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leon Perera and elected parliamentarian for Hougang SMC Png Eng Huat, had asked Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament this week.

Mr Perera asked Mr Ong: “(a) what is the trend for the total average amount of Government spending on foreign students per year over the past 10 years; and (b) what is the current percentage of foreign students receiving any form of state financial aid out of the total student population (both foreign and local) in polytechnics, junior colleges and autonomous universities.”

Mr Png followed up on these questions and asked the Education Minister: “(a) what is the number of international students who have defaulted on their tuition grant bond obligation in the last three years; (b) what is the amount of grants given to these defaulting students; and (c) what are the results of the recovery efforts made.”

In Parliament last month, Mr Perera asked the Minister for Education what is the total Government spending on scholarships and other forms of financial aid given to foreign students studying in Singapore schools and universities, in each of the past five years.

In a written reply, Mr Ong revealed that the total Government spending for international students “comes up to around $130 million a year.” The People’s Action Party (PAP) politician’s revelation drew swift backlash from Singaporeans.

In response to Mr Perera’s latest questions, Mr Ong said that the Government spends S$130 million a year on scholarships for foreign students and S$108 million on tuition grants for foreign students.

Asserting that no Singaporean student is ever displaced from an institute of higher learning (IHL) because of a foreign student, Mr Ong said that the seats at IHLs are planned with Singaporean students in mind.

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Mr Ong said that only a “small minority” of foreign students who exceed the IHL’s standards are admitted into local tertiary schools and that the annual education budget of about S$13 billion is “overwhelmingly” spent on local students.

The ruling party politician added that annual government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students has fallen by about 50 per cent over the past 10 years.

Pointing out that this means the Government used to spend about S$476 million on foreign students in the past, Mr Yee said: “Put 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.”

Mr Yee added that spending on foreign students was one of the issues he focused on when he entered Parliament as an NCMP in 2011. He recounted: “I had met many Singaporeans whose children were not able to enter our local universities because of the limited number of places. Many went into private universities here or abroad…

“My friends teaching in our local universities had told me that they were alarmed at the then-increasingly large number of foreign students on our government scholarships who could barely even get third class honours.”

In 2011, Mr Yee found that 41,000 Singaporeans out of a 45,000-50,000 yearly cohort of Singaporeans of university-going age by birth were enrolled in private universities and private education institutions (PEIs). He was not able to find out how many Singaporeans chose to study abroad.

Mr Yee said that these figures “showed the aspiration for higher learning was very big but places were very limited. The cost for private education, whether done here or abroad is steep and beyond the means of many ordinary Singaporeans.”

Noting that it was only later the the Government expanded the number of seats for local students and introduced two more universities, Mr Yee revealed that he has asked many questions on data about foreign scholars in Singapore during his time in Parliament. He recounted:

“Data was scant, so I began a series of probe into this issue. I asked in February 2012 about the number of foreign scholars in Singapore and the amount spent on them, only to be told that the government gave out 320 scholarships to ASEAN students yearly.
“I followed up again the next month with another questions about non-ASEAN scholars and was given a figure of 1,700 scholars a year. That meant 2,000+ foreign scholarships a year, multiplied by their disclosed rate of $18,000 spent annually on average per scholar.
“What MOE did not disclose was that scholarships given out would be valid for the duration of the studies here as long as the scholar continued to meet MOE’s criteria, which would typically be 4 years. The cost of foreign scholarships given out annually would have worked out to be at least $144 million a year then.
“Next was whether we were giving scholarships to foreigners that are of good quality enough to add to the vibrancy of our education system. From further parliamentary questions, I found out that a third of foreigners on our undergraduate scholarships did not graduate with at least a second upper honours, the typical definition of a good honours.
“MOE later disclosed that these scholars were only expected to maintain the GPA equivalent of second lower honours 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 to 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.”

Mr Yee clarified that he did not ask these questions because he is anti-foreigners, he asked these questions because he felt that “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.”

He added: “My concern was that we were giving out foreign scholarships too liberally with too low expectations…I was also concerned about the high amount spent with weak efforts to enforce their fulfillment of bonds, whether for scholars or for tuition grant holders.

“The figure revealed by Minister Ong is that 4% of tuition grant awardees are in default currently. I believe the figure was higher earlier until MOE decided to step up enforcement.”

Calling the S$476 million spent annually on scholarships and tuition grants for foreign students 10 years ago “far too high,” Mr Yee said: “Post GE2011, the government had realised the flaws in their earlier policies on foreign students and started the reversal. Singaporeans had spoken loudly enough to be heard.”

He added: “We may have cut the spending down to $238 million now but I think more details are needed as to what criteria we use for awarding scholarships and whether we expect scholars to remain in Singapore to contribute to us economically.

“Pre-tertiary students are not bonded and about half of them do not end up continuing their tertiary education in Singapore. They do not need to return to Singapore to work as well when they graduate.

“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.”

Read his post in full HERE.

WP politicians set to question Ong Ye Kung on Govt spending on foreign students