Sylvia Lim: Increase size of cohort entering local universities

Currently, the proportion of Primary One cohort admitted into the local subsidized universities is targeted to rise to 30% by 2015, with the new university and institute coming up. I would like to ask if MOE will review this 30% target with a view to increasing it.

This was a speech in Parliament on 10 March 2010 by NCMP, Sylvia Lim,during the Committee of Supply debate, on the budget for the Ministry of Education (MOE). Read other Workers’ Party speeches and statements at wp.sg.

————-

Currently, the proportion of Primary One cohort admitted into the local subsidized universities is targeted to rise to 30% by 2015, with the new university and institute coming up.
I would like to ask if MOE will review this 30% target with a view to increasing it.
I note MOE’s concerns that we should not have sudden increases in graduate numbers which may leave many unemployed or under-employed.
However, since Singapore is prioritising innovation and greater productivity, the population as a whole has to raise its game, and the jobs of the future will require different educational qualifications from currently. We are also trying to encourage the growth of entrepreneurs to find their own niches. With globalization, Singaporean graduates also have more opportunities overseas, which will still benefit their families and Singapore, directly or indirectly.
As a matter of interest, according to the OECD Factbook 2009, the 25 OECD countries were expecting to graduate on average about 37% of an age cohort from Tertiary-Type A (typical degree level) education in 2006. It was stated that there was a strong trend in increasing their cohort participation rates in the last 15 years in line with producing highly-skilled labor forces.
I agree that we need to maintain standards in university admission. However, over the years, many students who were rejected by our local universities were admitted to reputable foreign universities and did well. But this route is available only to those whose parents could afford it.
I hope the Ministry will look into revising the cohort participation rate at our local subsidized universities beyond 30%.

Currently, the proportion of Primary One cohort admitted into the local subsidized universities is targeted to rise to 30% by 2015, with the new university and institute coming up.

I would like to ask if MOE will review this 30% target with a view to increasing it.

I note MOE’s concerns that we should not have sudden increases in graduate numbers which may leave many unemployed or under-employed.

However, since Singapore is prioritising innovation and greater productivity, the population as a whole has to raise its game, and the jobs of the future will require different educational qualifications from currently. We are also trying to encourage the growth of entrepreneurs to find their own niches. With globalization, Singaporean graduates also have more opportunities overseas, which will still benefit their families and Singapore, directly or indirectly.

Continue reading “Sylvia Lim: Increase size of cohort entering local universities”

My struggle with Chinese

Hearing MM Lee Kuan Yew admit that his bilingual policy caused generations of students to pay a heavy price because of his “ignorance” made me feel somewhat vindicated, after the years of struggling with learning Chinese in school.

Hearing MM Lee Kuan Yew admit that his bilingual policy caused generations of students to pay a heavy price because of his “ignorance” made me feel somewhat vindicated, after the years of struggling with learning Chinese in school.

In his speech at the launch of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language two days ago, MM Lee talked about how Singapore schools’ emphasis on reading and writing Chinese, instead of on listening and speaking, was the wrong approach. He singled out 默写 (memorising an entire Chinese passage and regurgitating it in a test) as “madness” (疯狂). I couldn’t agree more!

Continue reading “My struggle with Chinese”

How schools kill creativity

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong…If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

I watched this very entertaining and thought-provoking video on TED by Sir Ken Robinson, an expert in creative and cultural education. He talked about how children don’t need to be taught to be creative, because they already are — but schools are educating them out of their creative capacities.

Continue reading “How schools kill creativity”

The necessary privileges of citizenship

I was invited to be a studio guest on Channel NewsAsia’s BlogTV on 27 August 2009. This was my second time on the show. The topic for this discussion was titled, “We want more… privileges!”

This article first appeared in Hammersphere.

I was invited to be a studio guest on Channel NewsAsia’s BlogTV on 27 August 2009. This was my second time on the show. The topic for this discussion was titled, “We want more… privileges!”

Continue reading “The necessary privileges of citizenship”

Affordable uni education for poly grads

I am glad to learn from the President’s speech in Parliament on Monday that Singapore is opening up a new government-subsidised tertiary institute designed for more polytechnic graduates to be able to obtain their university degrees locally.

I think this is long overdue. I know of so many poly graduates who, because they were not in the top 10% of their class, did not qualify for local universities. Their parents had to fork out thousands for them to study overseas, usually in Australia. Apart from the drain on finances for individual families, on a national level this money could have been spent locally, contributing to the Singapore economy, instead of the Australian economy. And for the many families who couldn’t afford an Australian education, it is unfortunate that their sons and daughters were denied a quality university education because of financial constraints, and had to join the ranks of middle rung workers working for imported foreign talent.

Continue reading “Affordable uni education for poly grads”

Govt’s graduate equation needs balancing

During last year’s National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to set up a fourth university in Singapore, targeting 30 per cent of each cohort to enter publicly-funded universities.

However, based on the past week’s news, it appears the Government is now preparing the ground for a possible downgrading of these plans.

More education could mean less growth: Minister

On 11 June, TODAY reported that Singapore Polytechnic had just launched a scholarship programme to groom top students to be future ministers. The report hinted that university degrees may not even be necessary to reach the highest offices in the land. Polytechnic diplomas could suffice.

Later that day, in his first major speech since his appointment, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen told an Australian university alumni gathering that “more education does not necessarily mean more growth”. He cautioned against a “fixation” with numerical targets for undergraduate enrolment, and said that “expanding education thoughtlessly may actually weaken the link with growth”.

This was also reported on by TODAY on June 12th.

The minister then sounded another alarm that increasing university numbers may reduce the overall quality of education. He further warned that universities could drain teachers from secondary schools. (It is puzzling why the minister thinks future universities will be staffed by National Institute of Education graduates, rather than PhD holders.)

Most of Dr Ng’s postulations were quoted from the book, Does Education Matter?: Myths about Education and Economic Growth by Alison Wolf, a professor at King’s College London. The minister’s press secretary pointed this out in a reply to TODAY on 14 June, wherein she accused the paper of “inaccurate and misleading” reporting.

Having read the minister’s entire 18-page speech, I thought there was nothing inaccurate or misleading about the article ran by TODAY. The minister quoted extensively from that book, and spent the next five pages of his speech arguing that more university education may not lead to economic growth, and that our technical institutes (ITEs) and polytechnics are serving our needs wonderfully. It is not unreasonable to assume then that Prof Wolf’s theories lined up with Dr Ng’s own views and, by extension, those of the Government.

Foreign talent and the “flexible labour policy”

The Government has always been unapologetic about its utilitarian approach in moulding the education system to meet market needs. However, foreign employment figures over the past few years point to a failure of the education system in producing the skilled manpower that employers are demanding.

As of December 2006, there were about 83,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders in Singapore[i]. The EP is a work pass for foreigners, usually degree holders, whose monthly salary ranges exceeds $2,500. These professionals are commonly referred to as “foreign talent”, who possess the skills and talents that our local graduates lack — or so we are told.

This means that Singapore is short of about 80,000 university graduates to support the economy. It doesn’t make sense for the Government to constantly lament about the shortage of local knowledge workers and import wave after wave of foreign talent, when it can solve this problem by providing more university places and financial support for Singaporeans to complete their higher education.

The Government has explained that it wants to maintain a “flexible labour policy”, which sees it issuing more work passes during boom years, and cutting back during economic downturns.

While that sounds good in theory, the reality on the ground may not be so straightforward. There is no guarantee that during lean years, employers will suddenly awaken to their patriotic duty to retrench only foreigners and retain Singaporeans.

In fact, the additional costs of employing Singaporeans — paying CPF, granting National Service and maternity leave — mean that the pragmatic choice for employers would be to fire the Singaporeans and keep the foreigners when profits are down.

One step forward, two steps back

The Government seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back on the issue of university education. Back in 2003, a committee helmed by Dr Ng himself rejected the idea of setting up a fourth university. Now even with the commitment from the Prime Minister to expand local university places, he seems to be tempering expectations.

The argument that having more universities will lower overall standards is a red herring. No one wants the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore Management University (SMU) to lower their standards and rankings. There is no reason to expect this to happen if a fourth or fifth university were to be set up. Why can’t each university be the “best in its class”? A culture of excellence is, after all, the Singaporean way.

Even if Singapore were to go into recession, Singaporeans will still be better off as unemployed graduates than as unemployed non-graduates. After all, if graduates can’t find jobs locally, they can more easily seek employment overseas. This is one of the key benefits of making Singaporeans “world ready”, as the Government aims to do.

Political cost of higher education

Why does the Government seem reluctant to drastically expand graduate numbers? Compared to other developed countries, Singapore’s proportion of graduates is dismal. Only 23 per cent of each cohort in Singapore graduates from university. In Australia, 60 per cent hold degrees. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average is 36 per cent.

Perhaps the Government realises that having “too many” educated citizens may be politically inconvenient, especially if the economy does poorly and graduate unemployment numbers increase. With their stronger ability to articulate grievances, vocal graduates may require our highly-paid ministers to spend much more time thinking of the right way to “fix” them or “buy” them over.

Already, support in Singapore for a more pluralistic government is highest among the educated classes. A post-2006 election survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies found that most Workers’ Party supporters were from the upper-middle and above household income group. A higher proportion of respondents with university qualifications also felt there is a need to reform the election system.

The fourth university: yes but not quite?

We can expect that in the coming months, the Ministry of Education and its “nation-building” press will continue to wax lyrical about how wonderful our ITEs and polytechnics are, and how their graduates find jobs much faster than university graduates. They will sound more warnings about how more graduates could mean poorer overall quality — just like “those other countries”.

Finally, Singaporeans will be informed that the fourth university will be set up as promised, but it will be just a small liberal arts college with a cosy 200 or so students.

Meanwhile, thousands of Singaporeans, desperate for a university education, will continue to flock to overseas universities each year, in pursuit of that degree that they could have obtained at a much lower cost had there been more places in local universities.

More graduates needed for knowledge economy

A fundamental shift in mindsets with respect to university education is needed. Our knowledge economy needs many more graduates, and it will be better to fill the skilled positions with Singaporeans rather than importing more foreign talent.


Update: Since this article was first publised on 17 June on The Online Citizen, the government has announced that Singapore’s fourth university will eventually be a liberal arts college taking in up to 2,500 students annually. I’m glad I was wrong on this count. However, its intake will still fall way short of the 4,000 students who go to Australia year each seeking university degrees.

——————–

Related articles:

· Increasing access to higher education imperative for Singapore

· Education is the best social welfare

[i] Figures provided in a reply by then-Manpower Minister Ng Eng Hen to a Parliamentary question on 17 July 2007.

Knowledge-based economy needs more Uni education financing

The need to improve access to higher education has taken a much more urgent imperative. This need can be met to a large extent by increased financing for university education for Singaporean students, particularly those in the low-income group.

FINANCE Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced in his 2008 Budget Speech that the Government will increase the CDC/CCC-University Bursaries for students from the lowest 20 percent of households from $1,000 to $1,600. This is a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the increase is probably not enough to cover the 7 to 20 percent hike in tuition fees recently announced by Singapore’s three publicly-funded universities. Singaporean students will now have to fork out between $6,360 and $18,230 a year for undergraduate courses.

The ever-increasing cost of tertiary education is a cause for worry.

I believe that education is the best socio-economic leveller. One of the most important ways to facilitate social mobility is education, and tertiary education in particular.

The Government has taken pride in its self-proclaimed “meritocratic” system, whereby anyone, whether rich or poor, can climb the social ladder to join the ranks of the elites in society if they achieve excellent grades in school and get awarded scholarships to study in university. However, the success of a country should not be judged solely by the achievements of the elite.

The former president of Japanese multinational Matsushita remarked some years ago to the then-Economic Development Board (EDB) Chairman Ngiam Tong Dow that our educational structure had some brilliant individuals perched like eagles on high peaks, but the average education level of the rest was not high. He advised that Singapore should concentrate on educating the masses to raise the average level and not just focus on the top scholars. He said that to advance as a nation, we need “high broad plateaus, not solitary peaks”.

Singapore already has a very good education system at all levels — primary, secondary, technical and tertiary. However in the present economy, it is tertiary education (i.e. universities and polytechnics) that will make the difference between those who break into the middle-income group and above, and those who will remain in the struggling-to-survive group.

Singapore needs more knowledge workers to power our economy. If companies can’t find these workers locally, they will have to hire foreign talent, as they are already doing. The globalisation train is steaming ahead, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Most manufacturing jobs and even technical jobs will be shipped out to China, India or Vietnam sooner than we think. No amount of labour protectionism will save these jobs.

More foreign talent or more education?

To prepare our young for the knowledge-based economy, the Government needs to give as many students as possible the opportunity to study in tertiary institutions.

It doesn’t make sense for the Government to constantly carp at the lack of local knowledge workers and import wave after wave of foreign talent, when it should be putting in place more long-term solutions by providing more opportunities for Singaporeans to complete their tertiary education. Human capital development is an investment with an almost guaranteed return.

In his Budget speech, the Finance Minister pointed out that in centres for innovation like Austin, Texas, over 44 percent of their population hold college degrees. But currently in Singapore, a mere 23 percent of each primary one cohort enters university. The Government plans to increase this to just 30 percent by 2015.

This, in my opinion, is not enough. It is unfortunate that many parents spend fortunes to send their children overseas to study due to lack of places in local universities. I understand that one of the Government’s concerns is that the job market may not be able to support a higher proportion of degree holders, should the economy head south in the future.

The question to ask then is will these Singaporeans be better off if they didn’t have a degree? Probably not. They might still be able to find well-paying jobs overseas with their qualifications, just like many Filipinos do. Not so for the non-degree holders, who will have far fewer career options, whether the economy is doing well or not.

Tertiary education and the lower income group

Students from low-income households often have to overcome numerous odds just to perform well in their studies, let alone finance their tertiary education. For these students, continuing on to tertiary education after secondary school entails not just tuition fees and other school-related expenses (stationery, books, etc). It also presents an opportunity cost. This is because many would be under pressure to start working as soon as possible to contribute to the household income, often to see their younger siblings through school.

Furthermore, the lower value that many poorer parents place on higher education is another factor that might be holding down university enrolment among low-income students. I have a good friend who qualified for junior college after secondary school, but her parents discouraged her from continuing on in JC after the first 3 months because they felt it would be a stretch to pay for her university education. She went to polytechnic instead. (Fortunately she took up a professional degree after she started working.)

This would probably not have happened had her family been wealthy enough to pay for her university education. In fact, all of my peers from high-income backgrounds eventually completed university, even those with average academic ability. Those who didn’t do well enough to enter local institutions completed their studies overseas. Is it fair, then, for someone to miss out on a university education just because her family is not rich?

A report by the Education Policy Institute in Canada titled “Grants for Students” found that grants are an effective way of increasing access to higher education for students from low-income households. The research revealed that grants tip the cost-benefit ratio of higher education in favour of the “benefits” by offsetting tuition costs and foregone income. In other words, a JC student from a low-income family who is deciding whether to spend $20,000 to complete university or start working immediately no longer has to make that decision if he knows that his university education will be covered entirely by grants.

Are current bursaries enough?

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has stated that no student will be denied a university education because of financial difficulties. It claims that all cases of genuine financial need will be met by bursaries.

Unfortunately, bursaries don’t cover all the tuition costs, let alone the other expenses of higher education. The annual tuition fees in local public universities range from $6,360 for arts and engineering, to $18,230 for medicine and dentistry. This includes the MOE tuition grant, which is given to all students, even foreigners. Most bursaries are valued between $800 and $2,000 per year, based on the level of financial need.

One needs to have a gross monthly per capita household income of less than $1,000 to qualify for an $800-a-year MOE bursary. Furthermore, the bursaries usually prohibit students from concurrently holding other bursaries or scholarships. They are also required to re-apply every academic year.

The National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Student Financial Aid Unit states on their website that the financial aid package is a “partnership involving the student, his/her family and the University”. While this co-payment approach sounds reasonable in theory, in reality many students from low-income families still won’t be able to meet the balance of payments even after factoring in the bursaries. Many would still have to fork out several thousand dollars each year for tuition fees, books and other living expenses, even if they receive the maximum amount in bursaries.

Part-time work could make up for some of the shortfall, but the money earned may be needed to supplement family income or support siblings, rather than pay their own tuition expenses. In addition, since bursaries need to be renewed every year, the student has no assurance prior to entering university that his or her expenses will be adequately covered for the duration of the 3 or 4 year course.

A tuition loan may be an alternative, but it does not reduce the net price of education (in fact it increases because of the interest) and it saddles the student with debt even before he or she has begun working.

Therefore, I propose that the bottom 30 percent of households (according to per capita income) should be given full tuition grants and grants to cover other expenses like textbooks and board. The payable fees could be slowly increased from the 31st percentile until the 90th percentile. Students from middle income households should have access to a combination of grants, low-interest loans and “work-study” to cover all their tuition fees and expenses. Those in the top 10th percentile should pay close to full tuition fees.

Financial Assistance for Continuing Education and Training

The Finance Minister has announced that the Government will now provide subsidies for part-time degree programmes at NUS, NTU, SMU and UniSIM. The Government will meet 40 percent of the cost of these programmes. This is an excellent but long overdue measure. Many adults who take up these part-time degree programmes do so because they couldn’t afford to do their degrees after secondary school. They deserve to be given equal access to subsidised tertiary education just like their full-time peers.

Keeping Education Costs Down

According to NUS, 70 percent of their budget goes to paying salaries. In their quest to ascend to the top of the world university rankings, our public universities are paying increasingly large salaries to attract “top-notch” professors to come to Singapore.

I question the value of this strategy.

The rankings of a university are dependent more on the quality and amount of research by its faculty and post-graduate departments than the quality of instruction. This is because many top researchers and professors choose universities for their research opportunities and funding. In this regard, a highly-ranked university may not necessarily be the best in terms of teaching quality, and thus beneficial for those seeking higher education. I once had a physics professor who was a decorated US government scientist but couldn’t teach for nuts!

I wonder if our universities are wooing all these top professors, paying them top dollar and then passing on the cost increases to students, who may not enjoy any significant improvement in the quality of their education.

Conclusion

Many well-to-do Singaporeans would have welcomed the 20 percent income tax rebate and the abolition of Estate Duty. While I personally have no complaint about this, it presents a huge revenue loss for the Government. Couldn’t this money be put to better use by investing in education rather than giving it away to Singaporeans who don’t really need it anyway?

Singapore has done well as a whole in educating our people, earning praise from may quarters. Nevertheless, with increasing competition from India, China and the ASEAN region, the need to improve access to higher education has taken a much more urgent imperative. This need can be met to a large extent by increased financing for university education for Singaporean students, particularly those in the low-income group.

Singaporean students subsidising foreign scholars?

The Straits Times Forum, 20 Feb 08

Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

RECENTLY, I befriended a group of scholars from China studying at my alma mater, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They were in their late teens and were attending foundation courses in English and maths before starting their undergraduate studies. In their five-year sojourn at NTU, they will be given free lodging and a monthly allowance of $500 each. Needless to say, they do not have to pay for their tuition fees. When they graduate, they must work in Singapore for six years as part of their ‘payback” bond.

A highly conservative calculation of their five-year tenure at NTU suggests that each will cost the Government or NTU some $70,000. That is, $30,000 for their five-year tuition fees, including the charges for their foundation courses, and some $40,000 for hostel accommodation and their monthly stipends. I graduated from NTU five years ago, with a good honours degree.

I was in the top 15 per cent of my cohort – and performed better than some of these scholars. While studying at NTU, I had to work as a pizza delivery boy to earn my allowance. Upon graduation, I had to start paying off a $24,000-student loan.

Why are Singaporeans like me not treated as considerately as such scholars? My study loan took five years to pay off after I started working. The China scholars receive financial support, a free education and start their working lives debt free. Their six-year bond is seen as a contribution to Singapore.

Am I not contributing as much, if not more? Non-scholar Singaporeans are not treated in quite the same way as foreign talent, regardless of how well we perform. The disparity is disheartening.

Don’t Singaporeans like me who have done well deserve some relief? True, local scholarships are available. But not every Singaporean who graduated well, gets one.

Can the NTU or the Education Ministry tell me why graduates like myself don’t deserve some relief or reward for doing as well as, or better than, some of the foreign talent?

Zhou Zhiqiang

I’m glad Zhou has highlighted this unfair situation in Singapore. Singaporean students, as far as I know, never get this type of no-strings-attached full scholarships. The foreign scholars only need to work with some company in Singapore for 6 years. Singapore Government scholars have to work with the government for 6 years.

I just wonder where MOE is going with all this sponsorships of foreign students using taxpayer money. Do they really have so much money to give away in their quest to make Singapore an “education hub”? Is this really making us an education hub?

In Western countries like the US, UK and Australia, the foreign students pay full tuition and effectively subsidise the locals. In fact, education is a big money spinner for their economy. In Singapore, it seems the reverse is true. How unfortunate!

I’ve written a related piece on university education financing on theonlinecitizen.com.

.

That’s not the way to build confidence in youths

I was disappointed to read about the school principal (of a mission school, no less) telling her Sec 5 students that they might as well apply now for places in ITE because as they were unlikely to do well in the ‘O’ levels at the end of the year. However, I was even more disappointed to read Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew’s reaction to the public uproar about the principal.

In the Straits Times report, Principal’s ‘wake-up call’ to Sec 5 students had to be ‘conveyed’, RAdm Lui was quoted as saying, “Principals need to do their job to convey this message to the students and teachers to do their part to challenge them, set high goals and to help them achieve these goals.”

The principal was clearly in the wrong and it would have been better to just admit it and move on.

What is the point of telling Sec 5 students at the beginning of the school year that basically you all cannot make it and better give up? So what if statistically 40% of them end up not making it to poly, as RAdm Lui said. That shouldn’t stop them from trying their level best in their O levels at the end of the year to overcome the odds.

If they don’t do well enough to qualify for poly, then they can go to ITE after that. No shame in having tried but “failed”. But was the principal expecting them to quit Sec 5 and go straight to ITE?

For RAdm Lui to come in and say that the principal was just challenging her students to “set high goals” is to completely overlook the fact that she had just implied that they should set lower goals for themselves.

I’m all for not mollycoddling our youths. Discipline them when they misbehave. But insulting their intellectual abilities is the wrong way to spur them on to achieve greater heights. That approach to motivation is so ‘yesterday’.

————–

Also read:

.

Increasing access to higher education imperative for Singapore

In my previous post, I argued that making higher education affordable for the masses is the best form of public welfare as it gives all students, including those from low income families, an opportunity to graduate from university, which will give them the necessary headstart in Singapore’s knowledge-based economy. This will not only greatly improve the employment opportunities and social mobility of the low income students, but it will alleviate Singapore’s shortage of knowledge workers and hence reduce the need for such large numbers of foreign talent.

There are many challenges students face in completing their university studies, including financial difficulties, low family expectations, lack of effort and weak academic ability. This article will focus on the financial aspect, as it is the probably only factor that could prevent a student from completing university even though he or she has overcome all the other factors.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has always claimed that no student will be denied a university education because of financial difficulties. It claims that all cases of genuine financial need will be met by bursaries.

Unfortunately, bursaries don’t cover the full tuition costs. The annual tuition fees in local public universities range from $6,100 for arts and engineering, to $17,500 for medicine and dentistry (including the MOE tuition grant, which is given to all students, even foreigners). Most bursaries are valued between $800 and $2,000 per year, based on the level of financial need. (One needs to have a gross monthly per capita household income of less than $900 to qualify for an $800 MOE bursary.) The bursaries usually prohibit students from concurrently holding other bursaries or scholarships, and require them to re-apply every academic year.

NUS’ Student Financial Aid Unit states on their website that the financial aid package is a “partnership involving the student, his/her family and the University”. While this co-payment approach sounds reasonable in theory, in reality many students from low income families still won’t be able to meet the balance of payment even after factoring in the bursaries. They would still have to fork out several thousand dollars each year for tuition fees, books and other living expenses, even if they receive the maximum $2,000 bursary. Part-time work could make up for some of the shortfall, but the money earned may be needed to supplement family income or support siblings, rather than pay their own tuition expenses. In addition, since bursaries need to be renewed every year, the student has no assurance prior to entering university that his or her expenses will be adequately covered for the duration of the 3 or 4 year course. A tuition loan may be an alternative, but it does not reduce the net price of education (in fact it increases because of the interest) and it saddles the student with debt even before he or she has begun working.

In his Budget 2007 speech on 15 February, Second Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced that all Singaporean children aged 7 to 20 will now have a Post-Secondary Education Account (PSEA). The PSEA of children of lower income families will be topped up annually with between $200 and $400. While laudable, a simple calculation will show that a child who gets a $400 top up every year from ages 7 to 20 will only have $4,400 their PSEA. This is not enough to pay for even one year of university tuition. In fact, by the time a 7-year old (in 2007) reaches university age, the tuition fees would probably have increased to much more than the current $6,100 a year.

An August 2006 report by the Education Policy Institute in Canada titled “Grants for Students” found that grants are an effective way of increasing access to higher education for low income students. The research revealed that grants tip the cost-benefit ratio of higher education in favour of the “benefits” by offsetting tuition costs and foregone income. In other words, a low income junior college (JC) student who is deciding whether to spend $15,000 to complete university or start working immediately, no longer has to make that decision if he knows that his university education will be covered entirely by grants.

Financial pressure may compel low income students to abandon university plans, enter the workforce and start contributing to family income. One of my friends did well enough in her O levels to get into JC several years ago. However her parents told her plainly that they did not have enough money to sponsor her through university. As a result, she left JC after her first 3 months and went to a polytechnic, which is cheaper than the JC-and-university route. This would probably not have happened had her family been wealthy enough to pay for her university education. In fact, all of my peers from high income backgrounds eventually completed university, even those with average academic ability. Those who didn’t do well enough to enter local institutions completed their studies overseas. Is it fair, then, for someone to miss out on a university education just because her family is not rich?

Singapore‘s economy will continue to rely more and more on knowledge workers. It is therefore imperative for the percentage of university graduates to increase to meet this demand. To improve access to university education, it is time for the government to consider developing a new educational funding structure to fully fund the university education of all students from families with incomes in the bottom 30th percentile. The payable fees could be slowly increased from the 31st percentile until the 90th percentile, with the latter paying full tuition fees.

In my next article, I will outline some of the ways in which this new funding structure could be implemented, even without the need to increase MOE’s overall budget by much.

Resources: