Friday, July 20, 2007

Foreign undergrads: Is 20% a target or a cap?

When asked about the numbers of foreigners in local universities, officials from the Education Ministry like to point out that the number of foreign undergrads are capped at 20% of the total student population. But is it really a cap?

In 1998, then Minister of Education Teo Chee Hean delivered a speech at the Fulbright Association entitled "SINGAPORE AS A HUB FOR HIGHER EDUCATION". In the speech, the Minister makes it clear that it was the Ministry that pushed the universities to reach the 20% TARGET. Left to their own devices, the proportion of foreigners would languish at 10%. And how do the universities meet this quota given to them? Well, at the taxpayer's expense, they have to send teams all over Chinese and Indian cities, scouring the high schools for suitable candidates. What if their command of English is not up to scratch? Nevermind, backdoor admissions, no need to attempt the GP. What if they cannot afford? No problem, all expenses from air ticket to lodging to lifestyle expenses will be covered by the Singaporean taxpayer. Just fly to Singapore so they can fill their quota. What they do afterwards is none of the universities' business. Which is why they do not stay. About 40% of all foreign undergrad scholarship holders leave Singapore without working for a single day. Which is how Singapore is building up a reputation in China as a nation of foolish suckers with too much money.

Now that the numbers are met and they no longer need to increase the number of foreign students dramatically, the officials now turn around and say it is a cap. A cap they don't take too seriously, it seems, at least for this year's admissions.

A quote from the speech:

  1. NUS, NTU and their predecessor institutions have been receiving a natural inflow of foreign students from the region. However, with the establishment of more universities throughout the region and the urgent need to expand higher education opportunities in Singapore, the attraction of foreign talent was not seen as top priority for NUS and NTU. The inflow of foreign students stagnated at around 10% of the undergraduate intake.
  2. But a world-class university cannot be built upon the natural talents and abilities of a small country with only 3 million people. Top universities go in search of the best talent in the world, especially at the postgraduate level. For example, in MIT, up to one-third of the postgraduate students in the engineering school are international students.
  3. NUS and NTU have to do likewise. They have set a target of filling 20% of their undergraduate places with foreigners. Fortunately for us, NUS and NTU can do this while expanding intake so that no qualified locals will be displaced. At the same time, to make it more attractive for foreign students to study in Singapore, tuition fees have been reduced. In 1996, the fees for foreign students were 1.5 to 2 times those for Singaporeans. From this year, foreign students pay only 10% more than locals.
  4. This target of 20% gives a push to the two universities to get out of Singapore and find the best foreign students they can. This is a useful discipline, as a constant reminder to the universities that Singapore thrives on being open to the rest of the world.
  5. The presence of foreign students adds some "fizz" to the student body in Singapore universities. The students draw upon different experiences and look at problems from different perspectives. There is no better way to promote critical and creative thinking among our young than to be confronted with different view-points and ideas.
  6. I am pleased to note that NUS and NTU have marketed themselves aggressively in the past years and are on track to reach their target of 20% foreign intake. For the academic year 1998/99, preliminary figures (up to 20 Jul 98) indicate that NUS and NTU have recruited more than 1,500 foreign students which make up 16.5% of their undergraduate intake. 70% of these foreign students are taking up courses in Engineering, Computers and Science. It is particularly important for Singapore to build up centres of excellence in these areas in order to catalyse the growth of high technology industries and ensure an adequate supply of qualified persons.

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