An edited version of this commentary was first published in NVPC’s SALT.
At first glance the parliamentary reply by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on tightening the process for tracking the bond obligations of foreign students after their graduation– reported by ST (Mar. 11) – is straightforward: that foreign students contribute to a necessary diversity in the universities, that they can be valuable assets in the workforce, and that foreign scholarship holders are ultimately bonded to work in a Singapore-based company for three years. Some might have even wondered about the questions tabled by Member of Parliament (MP) Png Eng Huat, and perhaps whether they were necessary at all.
Yet upon closer inspection crucial questions – especially those pertaining to specific figures about employment obligations of foreign students – remain unanswered. They include:
– While “80 per cent [of the foreign scholarship holders] either start work immediately or apply to the [Ministry of Education (MOE)] to start serving their bond at a later date”, how many thus far did not – or have not – completed the three-year employment obligation?
– It is said that the government “tracks foreign students once they graduate and will pursue them for liquidated damages if they default on their obligations”. If so, how many cases have been pursued thus far, and how many defaulters have successfully prosecuted?
– Based on existing contractual terms, is it possible for foreign students to stack two grant obligations by pursuing an additional undergraduate programme, and serve out the two three-year employment obligation terms concurrently?
MP Png had stated in his question that the MOE has not revealed – and does not want to reveal – the number of defaulters, and that he hopes “we will have a clear answer one day”.
This is not the first time a parliamentary question has been answered imprecisely by the MOE. Earlier this year journalist Janice Heng wrote about how MP Zainal Sapari did not get the exact percentages concerning the pay grades of school leaders. She posited that “[i]n choosing to withhold information”, unless the data is deemed sensitive, “ministries may also end up hurting the public’s perception of the issue at hand”.
Most Singaporeans have come to terms with the need to have foreign students in our midst. Critics have eagerly used anecdotal experiences to justify claims of Singaporeans being crowded out by their international counterparts, and while they might be true in certain faculties, the MOE and the Prime Minister have explained that the proportion is between 15 and 18 per cent. Furthermore the admission of foreign students has not compromised the opportunities of our own applicants: the rates of university enrolment and graduation are set to increase to 40 per cent by 2020, and students in institutes of higher learning will have access to greater financial support in the form of subsidies and bursary allowances.
The government might reckon that such details are unnecessary or needlessly pedantic, but would it not be constructive to put the information out for discourse? The lack of specificity on a touchy issue such as this only fuels greater suspicion and speculation.