Tony Tan and the university education review
This is a follow up to the previous post on DPM Tony Tan’s role in university education reform. There are a number of objections and replies to what was posted here and elsewhere. I think it’s fair only if I addressed some of these. Apart from that there are new points to be made here as well.
A commenter said that local universities reserve some 80% of places for Singapore residents. There are some considerations to take into account here. Firstly the number refers to the total number for each university, regardless of course of study. It is apparent to many that an arts degree is very different from a science degree, and when ex-DPM Tony Tan said that they needed more graduates to service the economy, I believe he did not mean to imply any degree is fine so long as it is a bachelors’ degree. Apparently some courses will be in demand due to its degree being sought after by prospective employers, whereas others are treated as generic paper degrees. I am not aware of any faculty-specific quotas, hence it’s entirely possible for the ratio to hold since the rest of them are admitted to courses completely unrelated to their prior field of study (polytechnic graduates for eg.). Additionally residents refer to both citizens and PRs, and not just citizens alone. Should faculty-specific quotas be established to help more polytechnic students secure a place? Perhaps this is worth considering.
But to be clear the point raised previously is not so much the ratio of international-resident students, but why couldn’t they raise the intake? Back then DPM Tony Tan said that doing so would cause the universities to become unmanageable “mega-universities.” But exactly what numbers did DPM Tan mean when he said it would be unmanageable? According to this 1997 report from the ST:
Expanding intake at NUS and NTU to, say, 15,000 a year was not desirable, he said.
Doing so could lower their standards and cause them to become unmanageable “mega-universities” with student populations of 30,000 or 40,000, said Dr Tan.
But is it really reasonable to have said something like that? Somehow or another unless he wants to retain it at 15,000, it will eventually exceed that number. From this report, appeared that the combined intake was 38,951 in 2003, which is more than double the 15k figure DPM Tan warned about back in 1997. Was this a case of poor planning or more likely a dismissive flippant remark? I cannot say for sure. Maybe someone else can shed some light on that.
Secondly, it’s true that Tan Teck Chuan did not apply to local universities so no one would know for sure if he would be accepted. But then again the previous post did not say that he was rejected by local universities, only that he stood a low chance because of existing policies which discriminated against polytechnic graduates. The same policies which resulted from the university education panel recommendations, accepted by the Government under DPM Tony Tan who was the minister-in-charge or university education, also started to woo foreign students by doing overseas recruitment in foreign countries. But I concede that Tan Teck Chuan’s case is not directly relevant since he was not rejected by the universities here (since he never even tried applying because it entailed an 8 month wait when he already had an offer from Cardiff). If so, kindly disregard this and I apologise for citing this misleadingly. But I should point out that the Teck Chuan’s story was found in that report musing on whether university admission was disadvantaging local polytechnic graduates, so if anything the ST article which I quoted is itself already erroneous in that respect, even without having myself cite it to make the case.
Now even retracting this story does not exonerate DPM Tony Tan. This minister is still responsible for having started all those foreign recruitment exercises where MOE staff travel to foreign cities and advertising for students to apply to NTU and NUS instead of their own colleges in a bid to attract foreign students.
Let’s take a closer look at what happened back then in 1997. Along with this came the recommendation to reduce the gap between what foreign students paid an what locals paid for undergrad tuition fees in 1997; a policy which was partially reversed some ten years later (after DPM Tony Tan stepped down) due to rising complaints from the public that taxpayers’ monies were being used to subsidies tuition fees for foreign students instead of locals:
Dr Tan, who is the minister overseeing university education, said that the changes were necessary to build up the universities into world-class institutions.
Foreign students will pay less too. Asean students now pay 50 per cent more than Singaporeans and those from elsewhere pay 100 per cent more. But from this July, all foreigners will pay 25 per cent more than Singaporeans and, from next year, they will pay just 10 per cent more.
This change is aimed at drawing foreigners who might otherwise be daunted by the cost of living here and the strong Singapore dollar.
But Dr Tan said that the foreign students who come “must be better than Singapore students”.
The universities will cast their net wide for foreign talent, from neighbouring countries, as well as from China, India and perhaps even Europe and the United States.
The universities will market themselves abroad, at educational fairs, by advertising and, when invited, by talking to students who might consider coming here.
Again there you have it, evidence that all these overseas recruitment effort for foreign students overseas (even to the point of visiting foreign villages and advertising for NUS/NTU) started way back in 1997 after DPM Tony Tan started to review and overhaul university education. In the same year (1997) the quota for foreign students was raised from 20% from 10% previously. From the ST article Varsity fee hike : RAdm Teo gives assurances (31st Mar 1997):
All foreign students will pay eventually just 10 per cent more than local students as compared to the additional 50 to 100 per cent they are paying now. Their quota will be doubled to 20 per cent of the student population.
Now some might ask: Is 20% really a lot given that the remainder are local students? To answer this question it might be helpful to compare the proportion of foreign students with that of other countries’. Taking the United States for example, in 2006 foreign born students comprised some 12.7% of the university student population. Take note that here it’s “foreign born” meaning to say 12.7% is inclusive of migrants who have since become American citizens. By contrast, in Singapore the 80% figure refers to resident population which includes PRs who were not born in Singapore. What does this tell you? Doesn’t this mean that if you consider foreign-born students (regardless of whether they hold citizenship or PR), would the actual ratio be much higher than the advertised 20%?
All these was done for the purpose of making the universities world-class institutions, at the cost of denying local polytechnic graduates a place in favour of foreign talent. It reminds me much like how Singaporean workers are treated as economic digits just so that the ministers obtain their desired Key Performance Indicators (KPI).
Now addressing the argument that all those changes were worth the effort since NUS/NTU degrees would be considered more prestigious when it reached world class standards. How does this help Singaporean graduates? To put it bluntly, unless the Singaporean graduate wanted to find work abroad and not locally, it would not help them much. Given that NTU/NUS were the main local universities, it was inevitable that employers in Singapore would hire mostly NTU/NUS graduates anyway. So it’s not as though Singaporean graduates are helped that much.
If we spend more time thinking about this, which group of people does this help? Isn’t it the non-locals who benefit? The PRs and foreign graduates. They are the group of people who are least rooted to Singapore and are more likely to leave or go abroad for their career or future graduate studies. Having a degree from a world-class university only helps ensure that they become more mobile and less rooted to Singapore. Is this a desired policy goal in itself? And yet again I stress this is very subjective POV, and the question is if NUS/NTU had taken in more locals does it mean it would have been less world-class? Even if it is, which is a more desirable objective? For NUS/NTU to become world class or to help Singaporean students obtain their degrees? Priorities matter here.
Lastly before I end this, allow me to elaborate how some of the university overhaul affected faculty staff as well. So far I have given only the point of view of university applicants and students but not that of local staff. The university overhaul overseen by DPM Tony Tan had the consequence of preferring foreign teaching staff over locals, even if they were not as good in teaching (or even communicating effectively in English, the linga franca of Singapore) as previous teaching staff had been from the ST Varsity changes controversy : Does Yankee do that dandy? (8th June 2002):
BUT it was in 1997 that the pace of change accelerated. That was when Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan was asked to carry out Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s vision of turning Singapore into the Boston of the East.
An international academic advisory panel comprising academics and corporate leaders was set up to advise the Government on how the universities could become a strategic resource for Singapore as it moved into becoming a knowledge-based economy.
Speaking on the issue during the Education Ministry’s Budget debate, Dr Wang said that with the ‘Americanisation’ of NUS, ‘established norms of employment have been turned upside down’.
He said that staff aged about 50 were upset that after committing their life to NUS, they were handed short-term contracts of two to three years.
There is a perception that foreigners, especially those with degrees from top North American universities, are preferred over locals, they tell Insight. All decline to be named.
Some charge that professors who do research, especially research that can be commercialised, are valued over those who are good teachers.
Says a mathematics professor from NUS: ‘There are colleagues who can’t string a sentence together in English, but they are held in high regard and given promotions because of their research.
‘On the other hand, some who are good, solid teachers who can truly inspire students, are overlooked.’
Several lecturers from the arts and social sciences faculty, which has witnessed the highest turnover rate, feel that they are being overlooked for pay rises and promotions because their research cannot be commercialised.
Whatever happened to the value of being a good teacher? Has it all been thrown out for the sake of Singapore’s leaders wanting to rush NUS/NTU to the top of the international university ranking lists? Many students in local universities have complained at one point or another that they are taught by lecturers who can’t communicate effectively or tutored by teaching assistants without a reasonable grasp of English for effective teaching. Did DPM Tony Tan and the university education review panel who recommended the changes decide that having world-class universities were more important than providing local students with affordable and accessible college education?
In short, having addressed all or most of the objections and replies I received both online and offline from anonymous commenters and friends, none of them have managed to disprove that these few main important points:
- DPM Tony Tan as Minister-in-charge of university education was the government figure who initiated and overhauled the university education by introducing wide-reaching reforms which were recommended by a university education review panel.
- These reforms included subsidising foreign students such that they paid merely 10% more than locals, in a bid to attract them to apply to local universities (this policy was overturned partially only in 2006 after many Singaporeans complained).
- Apart from this, overseas marketing of NUS and NTU to foreign students in their own backyard (through educational fairs) was also done to attract them to come to NUS/NTU, partly done by offering them fully paid scholarships.
- Teaching staff were increasingly graded more on their research contributions and possible commercialization of research ideas rather than their ability to teach and inspire students, resulting in increasing numbers of teaching staff who were competent in research but less so in teaching or even communicating in English to their students.
Tony Tan now says he has not ruled out a run for President. I would say, let ex-DPM Tony Tan’s record speak for himself.