Not satisfied with the reply from MOE last Friday (7 Mar) with regard to the issue of foreign students defaulting on tuition grants (‘MP Png continues to press MOE for answer‘), Hougang MP Png Eng Huat continued to seek an answer from Education Minister Heng Swee Keat in Parliament yesterday (10 Mar).
On Friday, Mr Png pointed out in Parliament that MOE is currently unable to provide a definitive answer on the issue:
After pulling out all the stops for these foreign Students, how many of them took advantage of our generosity and left Singapore without serving a single day of the 3-year grant obligation?
MOE is currently unable to provide a definitive answer to this question. Even among the current group of International Students who had not started work upon graduation and/or who have not sought permission to do so, MOE did not want to reveal the number of defaulters in this group. I understand the ministry is tightening its tracking and enforcement efforts for bond fulfilment and I hope we will have a clear answer one day.
Madam, the Tuition Grant Scheme was started in 1980. The Government would have dished out billions of dollars in tuition grants to tens of thousands of International Students to date. It is hard to fathom that we do not know for sure how many foreign students took the liberty to ignore their obligations the past 34 years.
We even roll out the red carpet for these foreign students that if they become Citizens, they will be released from serving the grant obligation. For that, I would like to ask the Minister, how many of them had done so to date?
MOE cannot tighten the tracking and enforcement efforts without first tightening the terms and conditions of the Tuition Grant Scheme. Allowing an international student to have sureties living overseas is as good as having no sureties at all because we all know how hard it is to enforce our contracts beyond the shores of Singapore.
Our Government dishes out all kinds of grants to Singaporeans. In public housing, there are strict rules governing the disbursement of grants and some grants must be paid back with interests with no exception. It is certainly not acceptable for some International Students to work our system, take our grants, and make a mockery out of our generosity.
In Parliament yesterday, Mr Heng changed tact and decided to focus on telling the House the benefits of sponsoring foreign students to study in Singapore.
Singaporeans develop a greater understanding of the wider world by having foreigners studying here, he said.
He told Parliament that mixing with foreigners helps local students learn how to work with people of other races and cultures.
Foreign students who go on to work here also augment Singapore’s manpower supply and help local companies seeking to expand overseas, he said.
Companies can tap these foreign students who understand the “Singapore way of doing things” and can promote the Singapore brand overseas, he said.
Citing his experience when he was a civil servant at the Trade and Industry Ministry, he noted that when he travelled in the region negotiating trade agreements, he met many people who had studied in Singapore institutions. “There is such a reservoir of goodwill and friendship and trust that allows us to do things together,” he said in his reply to Mr Png.
Mr Heng also noted that Singapore was not the only country seeking to draw talented students from abroad. He said that China has given several Singaporeans scholarships to study in its universities.
Singapore, of course, gives out a lot more scholarships to foreign students than foreign countries giving scholarships to Singaporean students. NCMP Yee Jenn Jong spoke about this during the Punggol East by-election rally last year [Link]:
I have also probed into how much our government spends on foreign scholarship. This is not because I am anti-foreign scholars, but because I feel we are spending too much with questionable returns. Through a series of parliament questions, I figured the government gives out more than 2,000 new scholarships to international students each year. As each scholarship is valid for 4 years, there would be over 8,000 international scholars in Singapore. I worked out that it cost our government at least$144 million each year. This figure excludes the scholarships given by Government Linked Companies, which MOE is unable to provide data for, and other allowances which may not be included in the answers.
We were also told that a third of the scholars did not achieve at least a 2nd upper honours, the usual standard expected of scholars. When asked in parliament, the Minister said that MOE has strict criteria for scholarship renewal, which include achieving consistent academic performance throughout. Yet from the results achieved by the scholars, MOE does not appear to be strict in enforcing this. The Workers’ Party has spoken out on this.
This is in addition to the more than $210 million tuition grants the government dishes out to foreign students every year, as revealed by Mr Heng in Parliament in January (‘MOE gives $210M in tuition grants to FTs yearly‘), thanks to Mr Png’s probing.
Mr Heng again repeated what he said in Parliament on 21 February, that 80 per cent of foreign students either start work immediately or apply to the MOE to defer their bond. The rest are not necessarily bond defaulters, he added. For example, some could still be looking for a job. But again, he refused to give the details of foreign students who defaulted and skipped town.
Should we continue to vote for Ministers who persistently dodge questions in Parliament?
What do you think?