Saturday, August 05, 2006

Stepping Stones

A couple of days ago, during a lecture, I met Y who is a postdoc in E's research group. At first, Y looked very familiar and when he mentioned that he had completed his Bachelors and Masters in NUS before getting his PhD in theoretical chemistry from Berkeley, it struck me that he had been one of my TA's in NUS. It is a small world after all...

From what I see, Y seems to have a pretty promising future in the academic world. Getting into Berkeley as an international student (i.e. an applicant without a US degree) is really no small feat.

The punchline here is Y is actually a PRC national and he was a MOE scholarship holder. If I recall correctly, Y was started his undergraduate life in Fudan, one of China's premier universities, before he was awarded an MOE scholarship to study in NUS. Before I go on, a little background information is in order.

As anyone who is from NUS or NTU knows, MOE sponsors large numbers of foreign students, mainly from China and India, to do their undergraduate studies in one of our local universites, usually in one of the science or engineering disciplines. The scholarship usually entails a 6-year bond - 3 years for the MOE tuition grant which pays for 75 percent of the tuition fees and another 3 years for the actual scholarship itself which provides for a living allowance and the remaining 25 percent of the tuition fees. The bond does not actually stipulate which organizations the award-holders have to work. All that is required is that they work in Singapore. In effect, the scholarship is a souped up version of MOE's tuition grant scheme to foreigners - it sponsors/subsidizes the undergraduate education of the undergraduates in return for a period of servitude. It is important to note that these people are not obliged to serve in any particular industry or organization upon graduation.

Now, one might be curious about the objectives of such scholarships. After all, a considerable amount of taxpayers' monies are involved. The justification is that the bringing in these students into the local universities would
  1. improve the academic quality of the university,
  2. increase the cultural diversity of the institutions and,
  3. supplement the local workforce.
Point 1 makes no sense to Fox. The most commonly accepted measure of the standing of a modern research university is its research. In this respect, our local universities do not fare very well. In fact, they are mediocre. The necessary conditions for research excellence are good researchers and adequate resources (e.g. funding, grad students, equipment). Bringing in undergraduates, no matter how talented, does not in any obvious way alter these conditions and improve the research output of a university. The most obvious way to improve the standing of our local universities is to increase research funding.

Point 2 also makes little sense. The bulk of the students under the MOE scholarship come from two countries - India and China. How much diversity can there be?

Point 3 does make some sense to me. Bringing in and bonding these young people does supplement the local workforce. However, the same can be accomplished by directly approving more work permits. One might argue that the quality of the people who come in under the work permit scheme may be lower although it is difficult to determine if that is true or not. There is also an implicit hope that these people would stay on and become citizens. Fat hope.

The problem is that, from my experience, it is wishful thinking to believe that such people will want to stay on. In today's world, talent is mobile. The more talented one is, the more mobile he or she is. That's the way of life today. For those who are unable to move, are they really the kind of people Singapore wants?

There is nothing to compel people like Y to stay on in Singapore once they finish serving out their bonds. In fact, the really smart ones know that the US offers many more opportunities. It is foolish to expect people, who have shown the willingness to leave and have left their native homelands, to shift their allegiance to Singapore. If one is prepared to leave India or China, why should he or she choose Singapore only? Why not consider Australia, Europe or the US? It is really little wonder that many of them perceive Singapore as a stepping stone and will leave for greener pastures once they have the means to. I know several of such scholars from my NUS days and I have never known a single one who has not expressed the desire to go overseas.

In some ways, I believe the scheme was a good idea in that it could 'capture' young foreign talents when it was first started in the mid-90's. For many young PRC nationals, the opportunity to study in Singapore is often their only chance to leave the country. However, this is getting less and less true nowadays with the increasing economic prosperity of China. Hence, it has also correspondingly become more and more difficult for Singapore to attract these people. For example, in the mid-90's, it was not difficult to convince a PRC undergraduate from Tsinghua or Fudan to come over to one of Singapore's university. However, from what my sources tell me, it has become more and more difficult, and MOE has started sourcing from second-tier universities in China. Instead of getting people who would have otherwise qualified for USTC and Beida, MOE is now getting people from the likes of Zhongshan University. While these people are obviously talented, in the sense that they are more academically accomplished than the average NUS undergraduate, they are not as good as those before them.

This brings us to the question: do the benefits of such scholarships outweight their costs? In other words, what are the tangible returns on the tax-monies invested in these foreigners? It would make sense for us to ask:
  1. how many percent of such scholars remain in Singapore for X years, where X = 1,2,3 and so on, after they first come?
  2. how many of them eventually take up Singapore citizenship?
In other words, how true is it that Singapore is only a stepping stone for them?


takchek said...

Even Singaporeans who left for studies overseas (I can vouch for the US ones) prefer to stay on than to return to Temasek.

Fox said...

Yes, I have also observed that to be true. However, the point I was making , in an oblique way, was that Singapore is paying these foreign nationals to be their stepping stones.

I mean, here you have the government paying money to these foreigners and the returns for the taxpaying public are not so clear to me. There are no metrics or KPIs to measure the effectiveness of such schemes. For example, it is not difficult to establish KPIs: you can quantify the number of such people who stay on and become citizens or you can quantify the number of such people who go into certain industries that have been targeted as being crucial to Singapore's economy.

Right now, the objectives are vaguely defined but the amount of money spent is not trivial.

Where is the accountability?

Elia Diodati said...

My standard reply to "why the small world phenomenon?":

Assume 4,000,000 sg'eans
If avg. life expectancy = 80, then there are 500,000 sg'eans in a +/- 5 yr age band from you.

10% of all students make it to a "top 5 jc", so that means 50,000 in the educational elite.

Let's say of those, 5% study abroad at some point. That's 2,500 Singaporeans around your age that are good at exams and study overseas. That's really not too many people.