Parliamentary Replies

August 05, 2019

Government spending on foreign students

Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament

Mr Leon Perera, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament

Question

To ask the Minister for Education (a) what is the trend for the total average amount of Government spending on foreign students per year over the past ten 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.

Response

1. To ask the Minister for Education (a) what is the trend for the total average amount of Government spending on foreign students per year over the past ten 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.

2. First, the core objective of our education system is to serve the needs of Singaporeans, and no Singaporean is ever displaced from an Institutes of Higher Learning or IHLs, because of an international student.

3. This is because we plan the number of IHL places with Singaporean students in mind. Each IHL sets standards for admission. This ensures that students can cope with the rigour of the curriculum, the IHL continues to be held in high regard both locally and internationally, and students are valued by employers upon graduation and they can secure a job. When all Singaporean students who meet the standards have been admitted, the IHLs then raise the bar by a few notches, and then admit a small minority of international students, over and above the local students. Because of this method, no Singaporean student is ever displaced from an IHL because of an international student.

4. Second, the education budget – about $13 billion every year – is overwhelmingly spent on local students, to make education affordable. Beyond the heavy government subsidies available to all Singaporean students, there is also financial aid, in the form of assistance and bursaries, to ensure that fees remain affordable for lower to middle-income families.

5. To answer the Member’s question, such financial aid is for Singapore Citizens only. The Member also asked for the trend of the annual Government spending on international students in terms of scholarships and tuition grants. This has fallen by about 50% over the last 10 years.

6. MOE recently stated in a reply to a written question by the Member that the total Government spending on scholarships for international students in our schools and universities comes up to around 1% of the annual education budget, or $130 million a year. Unfortunately, immediately after we issued the written reply, I see online reports with a fabricated and inflated number of over $300 million.

7. The real cost actually, I think it is well below $130 million a year, because $130 million is the worth of the scholarships to the students, not the cost to the education system as a whole. Let me use an analogy. Let’s say a restaurant gives a $100 voucher to a customer. The voucher is worth $100 to the customer, but the incremental cost to the restaurant to fulfil the voucher can be much less. Why? Because the cost of rental, utilities, service staff, management etc, are more or less fixed already, so whether the customer turns up with the voucher or not, it is the same logic that applies to our universities.

8. Likewise, imagine if tomorrow we send back all our international students on scholarships, how much of our education budget do we save? I think it would be much less than $130 million, because that is the worth of the scholarships to the international students, not the expenditure incurred by the system. Overhead costs such as the buildings, laboratories, equipment, management, manpower, faculty etc, will still need to be incurred anyway.

9. Likewise, imagine if tomorrow we send back all our international students on scholarships, how much of our education budget do we save? I think it would be much less than $130 million, because that is the worth of the scholarships to the international students, not the expenditure incurred by the system. Overhead costs such as the buildings, laboratories, equipment, management, manpower, faculty etc, will still need to be incurred anyway.

10. We will also lose a catchment of people who can contribute to Singapore potentially. Today, international students in IHLs 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 and/or citizenship and raise their families here. Even if they decide to leave Singapore after fulfilling their obligations, they can be part of our valuable global network of fans and friends, who can speak up for Singapore, and forge collaborations with Singapore.

11. Third, and because of the reasons above, every reputable IHL all around the world admits international students, and provides them with some form of financial support. The best universities around the world – Oxford, Yale, Ecole Polytechnique, Technical University of Munich, etc. – all have a diverse and international student body, far more than our IHLs in fact. In fact, there are top US universities like Yale, MIT, Princeton who have needs-blind admission systems. So they do not admit you based on whether you can pay, so long as you meet their standards, you are admitted. And if you cannot pay, there will be some form of donations and financial assistance to help you pay. And Singaporean students must have entered those schools on that basis before as well.

12. Because of that, Singaporeans studying overseas benefit from subsidised fees or scholarships from overseas universities as well. In fact, many European universities offer free or heavily subsidised education to all foreign students. There are around 400 Singaporean students currently studying in French and German universities, and they benefit from highly subsidised tuition fees there. So we give some and we also take some, and our IHLs cannot depart from this international practice norm, and has to be part of this global education network.