SINGAPORE: Government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for international students fell by about 50 per cent over the past 10 years, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung in Parliament on Monday (Aug 5).
The amount comes up to around S$130 million a year, or around 1 per cent of the annual education budget of S$13 billion, he added.
Mr Ong was responding to questions by Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leon Perera on the total average amount of government spending on foreign students per year over the past 10 years.
He also asked about the percentage of foreign students receiving financial aid in polytechnics, junior colleges and autonomous universities.
While the nominal sum spent on foreign students' scholarships and student grants was S$130 million a year, Mr Ong said that the cost to the education sector was actually less.
“Imagine if 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 S$130 million, because that is the worth of the scholarships to the international students, not the expenditure incurred by the system," said Mr Ong.
"Overhead costs such as the buildings, the laboratories, the equipment, the management, manpower, faculty, will still need to be incurred anyway," he added.
“Instead, if we send back all our international students, what we will lose are the opportunities for Singaporean students to build bonds and bridges with students from other countries and expand their network of friends.
“We will also lose a catchment of people who can contribute to Singapore potentially."
International students with scholarships are required to work in Singapore for at least three years after their graduate. Many eventually become permanent residents or Singapore citizens and raise their families here, Mr Ong noted.
"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," he added.
Mr Ong stressed that financial aid is for Singapore citizens only, and that the core objective of the education system is to serve Singaporeans.
"No Singaporean is ever displaced from the Institutes of Higher Learning or IHLs, because of an international student," he said.
"When all Singaporean students who meet the standards have been admitted, the IHLs then raise the bar by a few notches, and admit a small minority of international students, over and above the local students."
As for Singaporeans studying abroad, they also benefit from subsidised fees or scholarships from overseas universities, Mr Ong noted.
"So we give some and take some, and our IHLs cannot depart from this international practice norm, and has to be part of this global education network," he said.
In response to a supplementary question by Mr Perera who pointed out that subsidies from overseas universities may not be government-funded, Mr Ong said that Singapore’s system is different.
“They have state universities, they also have private universities. In our case, all of our autonomous universities are all government run, so therefore the circumstances are different. Ours is a much more public and centralised system,” he said.
He also welcomed academics to study the impact of government spending on foreign students.
"ABOUT HONOUR AND TRUST"
About 4 per cent of international students default on their tuition grant bond obligations, said Mr Ong, adding that the grant amount adds up to about S$5.5 million annually.
“For this small proportion of defaulters, MOE takes a serious view. It is not just a matter of money, but also honour and trust. We have managed to recover from a few, and we will continue to make suitable recovery efforts,” he told the House in response to questions from Workers' Party Member of Parliament Png Eng Huat.
He added that the Government will take measures to prevent defaulters from working or living in Singapore.
When asked about the drop in costs incurred by defaulters, from the S$30 million mentioned in 2016 to S$5.5 million currently, Mr Ong explained that this was due to a backlog of cases in 2016.
In the intervening years, the Education Ministry managed to contact "practically all of them", he explained.
"And therefore, we can ascertain now it is a 4 per cent default rate that represents about S$5.5 million a year," he added.
Mr Ong said authorities have tightened the recovery process over the last few years.
“But fundamental point is still, so long as we believe that we need a proportion – a suitable proportion of international students in our system … we will expect some of them to default and not fulfil their obligations," he added.
“That is inevitable, but we will try to tighten the selection, make sure we pick the right people and make sure they will continue to fulfil their obligation."