Knee-jerk opposition to the admission of international students in Singapore’s autonomous universities revolve around two related themes: While opponents are not against these students per se, they are concerned that they may be taking up too many places, and that international students who do earn a place should self-finance their studies. The response to a suggestion by two academics from the National University of Singapore to admit more of them – or more precisely “to admit more full-fee paying international students” (TODAY, Jan. 28) – was therefore a familiar chorus. “Priority must go to Singaporeans [especially] for popular courses like Medicine and Law”, and “Instead of increasing the number of places for foreign students, why not reduce the amount of grants given to foreigners?”, Facebook respondents wrote.
The perpetuation of these perspectives – including misinformed ones, when the number or percentage of international students is falsely inflated – can be frustrating, especially when juxtaposed against the benefits of having a vibrant community of these students within the universities. Among many benefits, the academic diversity within classrooms enhances teaching and learning, while beyond the classroom Singaporean students expand their global networks. Yet these counter-arguments overlook two problems: First, that besides top-level figures on the proportion of permanent residents and foreigners at the local universities, little is actually known about the distribution within the universities and their schools or departments, as well as funding amounts; and second, that the aforementioned benefits accrue most directly to those within the university, and not necessarily to those beyond it or those who might have been denied admission.
Without offering greater transparency on the distribution of international students and their funding amounts, and without broadening the discourse to include socio-economic issues relating to admissions to and financial support within the local universities – such as that of the class divide – the government will continue to confront the same scepticism, entrenching the same minds on both sides.
How the distribution of international students shapes perceptions
The latest data on the overall proportion of international students was provided by Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung in a written answer to a parliamentary question filed by Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera in July last year. A distinction was made between the undergraduate and post-graduate numbers. Over the past five years international students have formed no more than 15 per cent of the undergraduate intake, while these students have formed on average 32 per cent of the post-graduate intake. “University places are planned first and foremost for Singaporeans”, he added. “A small proportion of places are then provided for international students as they add diversity and vibrancy to the university, and enhance the educational experience for Singaporean students”.
Mr. Ong’s references to the 15 per cent proportion and the prioritisation of Singaporeans should be read in relation to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech in 2011. While he acknowledged that the foreign-student proportion of 18 per cent then “have not been at the expense of the local student intake”, the prime minister also announced that the government “cap the foreign enrolment at the present levels and therefore gradually the mix will shift and the proportion of foreign students will come down”. Then Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat later added that the aim was to bring the proportion of foreign students down from 18 to 15 per cent.
Notwithstanding questions about how the 15 per cent figure was derived and whether that is the most optimal or appropriate proportion – however those two adjectives are defined – additional data and information on the status quo will be helpful. These should include the distribution of international students within the universities and their schools or departments (perhaps modelled after the Graduate Employment Survey, which ranks the permanent employment rates and mean or median monthly salaries of graduates by their degree programmes), as well as the tuition grants, government scholarships, or other funding sources received by these students (perhaps in comparison to the ones offered to Singaporeans). And in relation to the subsequent point on broadening the discourse, there would be increasing demands for more information on the socio-demographic distribution of the Singaporeans enrolled in the autonomous universities.
Knowledge of these distributions is important, because the present perceptions of individuals are likely to be shaped by their day-to-day interactions. In other words, Singaporean students studying in faculties hosting more international students may cast unjustified doubt over the overall proportion of 15 per cent (not to mention, the difficulty of differentiating between undergraduates, post-graduates, and foreign students on exchange programmes), whereas providing more detailed distribution of these students could result in greater clarity.
Broadening the university admissions discourse
Yet facts like these distributions can only do so much. Cognitively individuals will still grab at any evidence – personal anecdotes of Singaporean students having to head abroad to further their studies or the occasional news story of international student abuses or transgressions, for instance – to confirm biases on why international students may be taking up too many places. And these biases appear in both camps. Having benefited as a public policy student from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) – where 80 per cent of the school’s population are students from all over the world – and now working on a PhD in the United States as an international student, I write from a position of privilege.
And because many of the direct benefits of hosting international students – in the words of Mr. Lee, of adding diversity, vibrancy, and enhancing the academic experience for Singaporean students – accrue directly to those within the university, the next questions should be: Do Singaporeans of varying socio-demographic backgrounds have equal shots of gaining admission to the autonomous universities? If not, can the present situation be quantified by profiling the distribution of undergraduates and post-graduates, and for policy proposals to be subsequently mooted? Discretionary admissions and more innovative interview or selection methods are good starts. Many scholarships, bursaries, and loans are also available, though the universities could also quantify these amounts: “What is the total amount made available to prospective students from low-income households … Along this tangent how many students have been awarded scholarships or bursaries, and when adjusted proportionately has this number grown?”
In addition to the challenges of the class divide, this is moreover part of a broader discourse on immigration in Singapore, which recently gained steam again with managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore Ravi Menon’s views on the country’s demographic trilemma: The growth of the labour force, net immigration, and the share of foreign workers. On reframing the overall question on foreign workers in Singapore, Mr. Menon said: “It is not about how many foreign workers industry wants or society can afford to have, but what number and kind of foreign workers we need to maximise the job and wage opportunities for Singaporeans“. Rationally, this proposition of having foreign workers complement the local workforce makes a great deal of sense, yet the average Singaporean might not concur.
With international students in the local universities, the crux is that – at the aggregate level – the benefits accrue to particular groups. Other groups may not necessarily lose, but their gains may not be as significant. This brings to mind a tangential quote by LKYSPP Acting Dean Danny Quah two months before the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, on the opposition of low-skilled or low-income workers against globalisation. He said: “The Trump-Brexit rhetoric, while inchoate and illogical, has struck a chord. And it has struck a chord with people who feel that they are now powerless. And this powerlessness has transmitted to an illogic in their own thinking. The well-off in British and American societies are the ones who have benefited disproportionately from globalisation, but it is poor migrants, not the very rich, who have attracted the ire of the Trump-Brexit supporters“.
Moving ahead, the government and the universities cannot just extol the benefits of a community of international students – of improvements to the international rankings of the universities, or of the added academic or co-curricular vibrancy within the schools – without cognisance of the frustrations which are bubbling, and without working to fix the outstanding issues.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.