NTU students’ struggle with financial aid: One in three in distress amid $238M expenditure on foreign students and 4.1% real tuition fee increase

(This post by Mr Leong Sze Hian first appeared on his blog on 6 June 2023. It is reproduced with permission.

A group of students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is demanding a review of the financial aid disbursement system, claiming it is both inadequate and lacks transparency. This group, known as NTU Financial Aid Friends, consists of students who are recipients of financial aid.

They claim that the amount of aid provided by NTU seems lower compared to other universities, and the eligibility criteria are unclear.

There are also concerns regarding the timing of bursary disbursements, which often occur after school fee deadlines, leading students to incur late payment penalties.

The campaign reminds me of the letter that alumni letter from NTU which was earlier sent in February this year, asking for donations to provide for students in need of financial assistance.

The NTU letter writes, “Each year, 1 in 3 students struggle to continue studying at the University. Without community support, they are more at risk of failing to earn a degree.”

The letter also noted that NTU provided close to 1,400 students with financial assistance in the Academic Year 2021/2022.

Over the years, university tuition fees in Singapore have noticeably increased. In 1987, the tuition fee was a mere $1,200, which has grown to a substantial $8,250 to $30,200 (for Medicine/Dentistry) in AY2022/2023.

This amounts to a remarkable increase of approximately 5.7% per annum over the past 35 years. After accounting for inflation, the real increase in tuition fees stands at 4.1% annually.

In contrast, government spending per university student has seen a real increase of only 0.2% per annum over the past 33 years, indicating a widening gap between tuition costs and government support.

While local students grapple with rising fees, there has been notable discussion about the financial advantages foreign students receive.

A parliamentary question raised by Non-constituency Member of Parliament, Ms Hazel Poa, revealed that only about 20% of International Students (ISes) in government-funded autonomous universities are paying full fees, while the remainder receive tuition grants.

In recent years, Singapore has seen a significant number of foreign postgraduate students, with 78.7% of them being non-Singaporean.

This raises pertinent questions about the cost to taxpayers in funding the tuition grants, scholarships, course fees subsidies, etc., for such a large number of foreign students.

A query by former NCMP Leon Perera revealed that the average nominal value the government spent on foreign students over the past ten years (2009-2019) was about $238 million, split between $130 million for scholarships and $108 million for tuition grants.

However, then-Education Minister Ong Ye Kung highlighted that these figures represent the value of scholarships and tuition grants, not the actual cost to Singapore’s education system.

The issue of equitable financial aid distribution remains at the forefront of higher education discourse as universities in Singapore continue to attract a diverse student body, both locally and internationally.

Furthermore, questions are being raised about the composition of the student body at the new NUS College, which has a 25% foreign student body compared to NUS/NTU’s 16%.

Why is there such a discrepancy, especially when the admissions policy for first-year undergraduates at NUS & NTU is set at 16% for foreigners?

In relation to the article “New NUS College off to strong start with 400 students picked from 7,000 applicants” (ST, Jul 17), of the 400 students accepted, about 300 are Singaporean, and 100 are from 21 different countries.

With such a competitive acceptance rate of 5.7% (400 divided by 7000), should 25% of places be allocated to foreigners?

Also, since “About 300 of the places went to Singaporeans”, does it mean that not a single spot went to a Permanent Resident (PR)? Or does “Singaporeans” here refer to locals (Singaporeans & PRs)?

Furthermore, what is the breakdown of the percentage of foreign students who are paying full fees, with tuition grants, or on full scholarships?

Mr Ong revealed that government spending on scholarships and tuition grants for international students fell by about 50% over the past ten years.

Does this imply that around $476 million ($238 million x 2) was spent on international students in the year around 2008/2009?

Furthermore, do “international students” include PRs? If not, how much more were we spending on non-Singaporean students, including the amount spent on PRs? Was it about $500 million?

Leong Sze Hian



Leong Sze Hian is the Past President of the Society of Financial Service Professionals, an alumnus of Harvard University, Wharton Fellow, SEACeM Fellow and an author of 4 books. He is frequently quoted in the media. He has also been invited to speak more than 100 times in 25 countries on 5 continents. He has served as Honorary Consul of Jamaica, Chairman of the Institute of Administrative Management, and founding advisor to the Financial Planning Associations of Brunei and Indonesia. He has 3 Masters, 2 Bachelors degrees and 13 professional qualifications. He blogs at www.leongszehian.com


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