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Tony Tan and the university education review

with 12 comments

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.

Teaching standards

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.


Written by defennder

June 10, 2011 at 1:39 AM

Posted in Singapore affairs

12 Responses

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  1. I think you’ve misinterpreted the numbers. The 38,951 number refers to total undergraduate enrollment (year 1 to year 3 or 4). The 15,000 number that Tony Tan was talking about is the enrollment per year.

    About the denial of opportunity to poly grads, I’m not so sure. I had many poly friends who managed to get into NUS/NTU and they weren’t certificate of merit holders.

    Other than that, good article especially the point about how making our universities world-class benefits the non-locals mainly. I’ll comment on teaching standards later.


    June 10, 2011 at 2:33 AM

  2. Fox
    Hi I think you got that right. I couldn’t quite make sense of what he was saying though. Was DPM Tan really ruling out ever reaching that enrolment number per year? I found this letter from 2007 which I quote

    As Mr Gan has stated, the universities have been more selective in offering places to foreign students. Places were offered to 18 per cent of the 22,933 foreign students who applied. For local students, places were offered to 14,781 or 51 per cent of those who applied.

    It was published in the ST. So adding up the figures give nearly 19k. To myself it seemed like he was making a flippant remark. More accurately he should have said at present they had no plans to do so, rather than resort to the argument that it would make the universities unmanageable.

    Regarding the point of how polytechnic graduates are accessed for entry, I’ve to confess I’m not too sure how it’s done. the universities don’t seem to be that transparent in revealing how polytechnic graduates are evaluated for entry. But what I have been able to discern is that it has always been an issue. Throughout the years, letters have been written to press about the need to make more room in universities for polytechnic graduates, especially given the rising importance of a degree in Singapore’s economy. For something recent (this year) I refer to this letter


    June 10, 2011 at 3:58 AM

  3. See, we are taking in more foreign students. But we also now have many more places in universities. Think about how many universities we have now, compared to 1997. And how many new faculties we have. The fact is that foreign students (as they do elsewhere, e.g. in the UK and US) actually provide income to universities and help subsidise tuition fees for local students as long as they are still paying more than we are.

    But I do agree with you about the policies on teaching staff, although I’ve not been one myself.


    June 10, 2011 at 9:27 AM

  4. @shornlock

    Foreign undergrads in our local universities don’t subsidize our local students because most of the former are on tuition grants and/or scholarships funded by the Singapore government. There are very few full fee-paying foreign undergrads in our local universities.


    June 10, 2011 at 9:40 AM

  5. While our local universities are trying their best to become world-class universities, our local top students are also trying their best to avoid entering these unversities. As stated by former PM Goh Chok Tong some time back, approximately half of the A Level students scoring 4A and above do not study in NUS/NTU/SMU. Now, I personally estimate that that number has increased to almost 75%. The fact is that only a few faculties in local universities, such as law, medicine or dentistry remain attractive to these students. Apart from the usual jibes about the number of foreign students in local universities (National Tiong University, anyone?), the quality of teaching and the overall atmosphere of the campus are far below that of top overseas universities. Add in the rise in local school fees, and the amount of organisations willing to sponsor students for overseas studies, and a local undergraduate education, at least, becomes much more unattractive to students than before.


    June 10, 2011 at 9:43 AM

  6. Not only the policy of giving full scholarship to foreigner students, but also giving tenure and special living and housing allowances to foreigner academias. This place has been badly managed just trying to be self-proclaimed world-class institution. Singapore is the only unique country in the world to treat its own citizens badly as compared to foreigners. It is better that native Singaporeans to migrate to other county that they like to live and for their own good. There is simple no future for native Singaporeans on this red dot.

    Daft Singaporean

    June 10, 2011 at 12:21 PM

  7. @surfman

    Well, one reason why Singaporean students avoid local universities is because the job prospects are graduating from Singapore are rather poor. Wages are considerably lower in Singapore compared to the US/UK and the standard of living is higher in the latter. Thus, students with the academic and financial ability go to US/UK universities. The payoff for going to one of our local universities is lower for these students. It is not too difficult to actually raise the academic ability of the local intake. All you have to do is to offer financial incentives to capture the high academic ability segment of the A-level cohort. For example, you can have a two-tier tuition system – those top 10 percentile of A-level graduates will be offered free tuition + allowance to go to NUS/NTU/SMU (outside of Law and Medicine/Dentistry) while the rest will receive the usual 75 percent tuition grant subsidy. The numbers can be tinkered around with but clearly it is possible to implement a policy to capture as many of the top students for our local unis if the will is there. After all, the govt does spend considerable amount of money to incentivise people from China and India to enroll in our local unis.


    June 10, 2011 at 11:06 PM

  8. @Daft Singaporean:
    I do not believe that there is any preferential treatment for foreigners when it comes to tenure. However, it is certainly the case that foreign professors are offered housing allowances and educational allowances for their children, while Singaporeans are not. This is the case even if the Singaporean concerned is being recruited from overseas This is a strong disincentive against any Singaporeans in academia returning to work in the local universities..

    Ponder Stibbons

    June 11, 2011 at 9:02 AM

  9. @Fox
    Actually, such a system already exists. Local universities do offer bond-free scholarships for tuition fees and allowances to some students, and it is highly likely that you will get one if you are a top A Level student applying for a non Law/Dentistry/Medicine course.
    But the main problem lies with the perception of our local university students as being inferior to foreign university graduates, especially by our government.


    June 13, 2011 at 7:35 AM

  10. @surfman,

    I’m aware that local universities do offer bond-free scholarships but they are not exclusively reserved for local students. Also, numerically speaking, the number of such bonds that are given out is smaller than those given out to foreign students. Singaporean students are highly valued by overseas universities. For example, I know someone who did very well for his A-levels but was denied a bond-free scholarship by NUS although he had been awarded an undergrad bond-free tuition scholarship by ANU (Australian National University), a university that is ranked higher than NUS, for the same course. Clearly, this illustrates the lack of financial support for our local students.


    June 20, 2011 at 8:49 PM

  11. @Ponder Stibbons
    At least in NUS, although foreign staff do get help with accommodation, new hires no longer get any educational allowances for their kids, which compares unfavourably with many North American universities. And remember: we foreigners are excluded from the vast majority of normal accommodation here, effectively forcing us to live in overpriced shoeboxes with pointless expenditures such as security guards.

    I’d also like to point out that, while in my department in NUS, most lecturers are foreign, we go out of our way to hire locals, sponsoring promising students’ studies overseas for example.

    I’m more concerned about staff and students barely speaking English. I’ve had some PRC students that I could not understand at all, nor they me. One wonders how they manage to pass exams.

    Dr Angmo

    July 19, 2011 at 5:04 PM

  12. @Dr Angmo:

    Good to hear about the educational allowances. I’m not concerned with the comparison with North American universities, since that is an issue of recruitment strategy rather than fairness—there is nothing unfair about NUS failing to meet its competitors’ standards, but it ought to treat its own employees without discrimination.

    About accommodation, JTC actually has a scheme offering subsidized housing (up to 40% below market rates, apparently) for foreigners only. I learnt about this when the A*Star research institute I was working at sent an email to all employees about it. Indeed, there is at least one NUS professor who lives in one of the rental terraces at Chip Bee gardens, and the listed rental rates on JTC’s webpage seem awfully low given the location. But in any case, I think the vast majority of Singaporeans would prefer to get a housing allowance (of around 2k, I heard?) rather than be restricted to the options of HDB leases or living with one’s parents. Not to mention that single Singaporeans are also not allowed to lease HDB flats, putting them in a far worse situation relative to foreign singles.

    Yes, I do know about schemes where departments sponsor PhD students overseas who are required to return to NUS to work, but this isn’t really that great a perk for PhDs in the US, which are normally fully funded anyway. But it’s good to hear that your department goes out of its way to hire locals.

    Ponder Stibbons

    July 19, 2011 at 6:43 PM

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