Making tertiary education work

A fellow university student from China once told me during our orientation at NTU that Chinese students perceived NTU to be a ‘dumping ground’ of sorts because Chinese nationals aspire to attend top varsities such as Zhejiang University and Peking University and only apply to NUS when they haven’t been accepted elsewhere. And if they couldn’t get into NUS, they would try for NTU.

Truth be told, there are many Chinese national students enrolled at NTU, with quite a few of them holding scholarships sponsored by the Singapore government.

Having the right mix of foreign and local students in our universities is indeed a delicate balancing act. It is said around forums and comment sections that Singapore universities are too full of foreign students who benefit from scholarships and take up the positions local students could take.

So are our local universities turning away local bright minds to make way for half-hearted foreign students who are here only because they didn’t have better options? Or is the offer of places to foreign students really just a business decision as they can bring in more revenue through charging higher fees?

On the other hand, there are many Singapore students abroad for various reasons. Could it be that they’re leaving our shores to seek greener pastures in the West?

Whatever the answer may be, the consequence of that is a major brain drain. A survey of 153 Singaporean undergraduates at 15 top US universities found that as many as 79% would prefer to work in the US after they graduate while only 18.1% wished to return to Singapore immediately after they complete their studies.

This begs the question: How can Singapore universities balance their need for international students who pay higher tuition fees and bring international exposure with their need to not aggravate the brain drain phenomenon?

People tend to forget the difficulty of financing, running, and maintaining a university.

Especially in Singapore, where our campuses are closer to huge cities within a city than to modest higher learning institutes.

Singapore’s campuses are huge operations that require a lot of money and manpower. From gardens, to cooks, cleaners, professors, counsellors, administrators, facilities, electricity, and renovation works, the costs are very high to provide a first-rate experience to students.

NUS reported in 2012 that it was running at an operating deficit of almost S$1.5 billion (which is quite normal for an operation of that scale), and that is after taking into account collected fees which had amounted to only about S$328 million for the last financial year.

About S$1 billion of taxpayers’ money went towards offsetting the deficit!

So, any additional dollars that add to the universities’ coffers can help pay the bills and ensure a better experience for all students. If it means depending on the deep pockets of the international student population to continue to improve on the quality of teaching, research, and infrastructure, among other things, then why not?

Australian universities, for example, are notoriously famous for their excessive tuition fees charged to foreign students while the locals hardly pay a dime by comparison.

But foreign students still flock to the land Down Under because of the quality of education offered. Yet, there isn’t a shortage of university places for the Australians.

If Singapore truly wants to become an education hub with world-class universities – as opposed to people’s last choice – then implementing higher fees on foreigners won’t be a deterrent to attract international students.

Singapore universities could potentially start charging higher tuition fees to this group, such that with the additional budget they increase the intake per academic year to accommodate more local ‘brains’ and ensure that they can sustain the high costs of running full-fledged campuses.

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