Every increase in university fees is accompanied by the same justifications: general rising costs, the hiring of more staff and faculty members, the need for better supplies and resources (what’s new, really). A hike is never “unfair”. Moreover present undergraduates, who will not feel the impact of the rise in tuition fees, are unlikely to articulate perspectives or protest against the changes.
There is no doubt that there are individuals who will be disproportionately affected, if the costs of higher education continue to spiral upwards. Mr. Teo Zheng Le, a Year 2 undergraduate doing a course in Computer Science, remarks that he would have felt “heavily burdened” by the upward adjustment, for the cost of education had influenced his decision prior to matriculation. Mr. Teo, who is paying for his own fees through savings and temporary jobs, explains that he would have gotten “a full time job, while doing a private degree at the same time” if the amount was too extravagant.
Therefore, without fail, the universities will stress that financial aid schemes and assistance are available (and strengthened). The question is: are they robust enough?
The National University of Singapore (NUS), for instance, has given the assurance on its website that the school remains “committed to a merit-based, needs-blind admission policy, and ensure that no deserving student is denied the opportunity of an NUS education because of financial difficulties”. Nevertheless, I believe more information on the specific amounts is required. It would be meaningful to know if the total sum of bursaries and student assistance loans has actually increased in tandem with the corresponding rise in university fees. Equally important is the need for the universities to raise cognisance of the many aid schemes available, so that those who need help can make the necessary applications.
Beyond stating their mere availability, the specifics of these hand-outs are crucial to put the assertions of the schools in perspective. It would also be helpful to know exactly how many undergraduates do benefit from these bursaries and loans every year.
Against a background of rising income inequality, and concerns that students from lower-income households are finding it difficult to pay through college, perhaps it is time to rethink how university scholarships are awarded. Could we go back to a system where performance and income are given equal consideration?
The key, ultimately, is to ensure that financial limitations do not prevent or discourage a capable young Singaporean from pursuing a university education.