Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ST Forum: Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

From the Straits Times on 20 Feb 2008:

Help grads who do as well as foreign talent

RECENTLY, I befriended a group of scholars from China studying at my alma mater, Nanyang Technological University (NTU). They were in their late teens and were attending foundation courses in English and maths before starting their undergraduate studies. In their five-year sojourn at NTU, they will be given free lodging and a monthly allowance of $500 each. Needless to say, they do not have to pay for their tuition fees. When they graduate, they must work in Singapore for six years as part of their 'payback'' bond.

A highly conservative calculation of their five-year tenure at NTU suggests that each will cost the Government or NTU some $70,000. That is, $30,000 for their five-year tuition fees, including the charges for their foundation courses, and some $40,000 for hostel accommodation and their monthly stipends. I graduated from NTU five years ago, with a good honours degree.

I was in the top 15 per cent of my cohort - and performed better than some of these scholars. While studying at NTU, I had to work as a pizza delivery boy to earn my allowance. Upon graduation, I had to start paying off a $24,000-student loan.

Why are Singaporeans like me not treated as considerately as such scholars? My study loan took five years to pay off after I started working. The China scholars receive financial support, a free education and start their working lives debt free. Their six-year bond is seen as a contribution to Singapore.

Am I not contributing as much, if not more? Non-scholar Singaporeans are not treated in quite the same way as foreign talent, regardless of how well we perform. The disparity is disheartening.

Don't Singaporeans like me who have done well deserve some relief? True, local scholarships are available. But not every Singaporean who graduated well, gets one.

Can the NTU or the Education Ministry tell me why graduates like myself don't deserve some relief or reward for doing as well as, or better than, some of the foreign talent?

Zhou Zhiqiang

At first glance, in a cynical cold-blooded way, a foreign talent policy that provides extra benefits to talented foreigners would make sense. After all, Mr Zhou is presumably a Singaporean and there is no need to be equally generous to people like him even if he is as capable as his foreign friends. To paraphrase an overeducated hawker I once knew, he is a captive of the system. So, because he is a Singaporeans, the government takes him for granted.

Yet, this is not the way to draw in young mobile foreign talents. Yes, generous scholarships to foreign students are a way to get these people to come. That's not difficult. The problem is, how do you get them to stay. Any foreign talent worth his/her salt will be able to infer that the reason he/she is a beneficiary of Singapore's generous foreign talent policy is that he or she is a potential immigrant i.e. not a Singaporean. Of course, it remains his/her advantage to stay a potential immigrant.

Don't get me started on the unfairness of it all to Singaporeans. How does the government expect Singaporeans to show goodwill towards their country when they can see that the system rewards bright talented foreigners better than it does bright talented Singaporeans. No bloody wonder we lose 1000 of our brightest every year. Yes, it is true that most of the 1000 leave Singapore because of better opportunities elsewhere but those 1000 too would have friends and family in Singapore. They may even care and feel outraged that the government treat those friends and family so shoddily. It is also this discriminatory policy that might push Singaporeans like Mr. Zhou to join the exodus.

The Goatherd And The Wild Goats

A GOATHERD, driving his flock from their pasture at eventide, found some Wild Goats mingled among them, and shut them up together with his own for the night. The next day it snowed very hard, so that he could not take the herd to their usual feeding places, but was obliged to keep them in the fold. He gave his own goats just sufficient food to keep them alive, but fed the strangers more abundantly in the hope of enticing them to stay with him and of making them his own. When the thaw set in, he led them all out to feed, and the Wild Goats scampered away as fast as they could to the mountains. The Goatherd scolded them for their ingratitude in leaving him, when during the storm he had taken more care of them than of his own herd. One of them, turning about, said to him: "That is the very reason why we are so cautious; for if you yesterday treated us better than the Goats you have had so long, it is plain also that if others came after us, you would in the same manner prefer them to ourselves."

11 comments:

kwayteowman said...

I am shocked that you failed to see the logic.

Our friend has already said that an education in Singapore costs $70k. Actually, it's more than that. $30k is tuition after the government grant.

If people think that $70k is a lot of money, do people think that the families of the PRC scholars will have the money to send their children to school in Singapore without the scholarship? Even if they had say $100K, would they send their kids to Singapore? People have to be realistic and understand where NUS and NTU stands. People really think that our local universities are Harvard and MIT?

Now, the scholarships are awarded to the students BEFORE they come. Of course, we try to choose the best students lah, but you think our selection system can be perfect? Of course there will be the good and the not quite so good. If every single PRC scholars does better then every single Singaporean students, then we're real losers.

I believe that these PRC scholars have to maintain some minimal level of performance or their get kicked out and probably have to pay back. Question is how high should this bar be? If the bar is too high then it becomes really harsh and people may not take the scholarships anymore.

As for this Zhou Zhiqiang, he has his chance at a local scholarship after his 'A' Levels what. There are A LOT of local scholarships. If he didn't make it, then he didn't make it loh. The PRC scholars also had their one chance. They made it, he didn't, so what's he complaining about?

Good for Zhou Zhiqiang, he did better after he went to NTU, but so what? Top 15% very good meh? How many of the PRC scholars did BETTER than him?

Frankly, these PRC scholarships are not quite in the same league as the scholarships that we give to our locals. Think of it as financial assistance to help foreign students to attend school in Singapore. Why do we need that? 'cos most of our good local students are gone (went overseas on Govt or Papa Mama money). Simple as that.

About talent. Singaporeans seem to have this fixation on talent. My view: not happy with Singapore, pack up and migrate loh. What's the big deal? The truth about talent is that they go where they wanna go. Talent also doesn't need to "feel appreciated" 'cos they are naturally treated well 'cos they are good mah. Those who don't feel appreciated (and NEED to feel appreciated), they are probably not talent loh. Perhaps if these folks go overseas, they will be treated as talent? If so, good for them. They should go!! Stay for what? :-P

I don't believe that the Govt will do anything. Folks who will migrate because they feel unappreciated are the whiners. Will such people likely vote for the ruling party? :-) Does it really matter if they migrate? :-P

People really cannot think.

I hope that all is well with you. Happy New Year. :-)

kwayteowman said...

While we are at it, do people know how much an undegrad on financial aid at Harvard gets? Do people think it's anything less than SIN$70K, when annual fees are in the US$30K range?

Any idea if these folks who get financial aid from Harvard get bonded for 6 years? :-)

These are rhetorical questions.

I would actually give MOE credit for doing what Harvard is doing and yet getting folks to sign a 6-year bond on top of it. And the best part: NUS/NTU are no Harvards. :-P

Fox said...

Thank you. Happy New Year to you too.

I am shocked that you failed to see the logic.

Actually, my point is this:
1) Such policies are very unfair to Singaporeans. They are bound to be unhappy. If you don't believe, you are free to write in to the feedback unit to ask for statistics on scholarship awards to foreign students. I have and I've been told that such information cannot be released for the purpose of inflaming public sentiments.
2) They also actually encourage these potential immigrants to stay... *potential* immigrants. Obviously, well, at least to me, the objective of awarding such scholarships to foreigners is to increase the immigrant pool. Unfortunately, such discriminatory scholarships actually discourage potential immigrants from staying.

I'm all for immigration. I just don't think that these discriminatory scholarship schemes are a cost-effective way of doing it.

Even if they had say $100K, would they send their kids to Singapore? People have to be realistic and understand where NUS and NTU stands. People really think that our local universities are Harvard and MIT?

Well, you're starting off with the assumption that NUS/NTU desperately need these foreign undergraduate students. Really? I would disagree with that assumption.


Now, the scholarships are awarded to the students BEFORE they come. Of course, we try to choose the best students lah, but you think our selection system can be perfect? Of course there will be the good and the not quite so good. If every single PRC scholars does better then every single Singaporean students, then we're real losers.


I don't dispute that. The problem is that the foreign students tend to underperform. For example, one myth that is constantly promulgated is that the top students in NUS Engineering are mostly foreigners. That is simply not true. The majority of the top students are locals. For example, most of the students who graduated with 1st class honours from NUS Engineering are Singaporeans. On the other hand, we know that most of the financial aid holders in NUS Engineering are foreigners. That's a fact.

As for this Zhou Zhiqiang, he has his chance at a local scholarship after his 'A' Levels what. There are A LOT of local scholarships.

There are a LOT MORE scholarships for foreign students in our local universities. Twice as many, in fact. Again, that's a matter of public record which MOE has confirmed.

Also, you are assuming that Zhou didn't do very well after his 'A' levels. Secondly, a scholarship bond would have limited his career choice. If he didn't want to be a teacher, a soldier or a civil servant, his choices would have been greatly limited. On the other hand, the 6-year bond for foreign scholars carry no such career constraints apart from the geographical one.

Good for Zhou Zhiqiang, he did better after he went to NTU, but so what? Top 15% very good meh? How many of the PRC scholars did BETTER than him?

Actually, I'll repeat this again: most 1st-Class honours from NUS engineering are locals.

Frankly, these PRC scholarships are not quite in the same league as the scholarships that we give to our locals. Think of it as financial assistance to help foreign students to attend school in Singapore. Why do we need that? 'cos most of our good local students are gone (went overseas on Govt or Papa Mama money). Simple as that.

It's not so simple. Have you thought about attracting local students by offering financial awards? I find it very strange that, for example, if there is a perceived need to take in stronger undergraduate students for chemical engineering, your first response would be to throw tax monies at foreigners. How about offering things like free tuition/financial awards to good students who wish to study chemical engineering?

kwayteowman said...

Such policies are very unfair to Singaporeans. They are bound to be unhappy.

The fact that people are unhappy is no evidence of fairness or unfairness. Consider the following scenarios: two Singaporeans who both went to the local university. One did better at 'A' Levels and got a local scholarship. The other didn't. Then in the university, the one who didn't get a scholarship ended up doing better 'cos he's a late bloomer. Is it therefore unfair?

They also actually encourage these potential immigrants to stay... *potential* immigrants....actually discourage potential immigrants from staying.

I'm not sure I follow this argument. Can you provide some evidence for this statement?

I just don't think that these discriminatory scholarship schemes are a cost-effective way of doing it.

Out of curiosity: do you have a more cost-effective way to do it?

Well, you're starting off with the assumption that NUS/NTU desperately need these foreign undergraduate students. Really?

Correct. Unlike you, I stand by this assumption. :-)

Tell us: why do you disagree with this assumption?

The problem is that the foreign students tend to underperform.

Can you provide us with evidence to substantiate this claim?

For example, most of the students who graduated with 1st class honours from NUS Engineering are Singaporeans.

I know of at least one other faculty for which is this untrue. :-)

most of the financial aid holders in NUS Engineering are foreigners.

You are using financial aid and scholarship interchangeably here right? I have no problems with that. As I said earlier, they are the same thing for the foreign students.

There are a LOT MORE scholarships for foreign students in our local universities. Twice as many, in fact.

Yeah, and approximately the same number of overseas scholarships. So Singaporeans have access to about the same number of places in terms of financial support for university education. This is ON TOP of the financial aid system that is need-based. How many Singaporeans in each cohort competing for these places? 50K? How many foreign students out there competing for the foreign scholarships?

Fact: while some foreign students perform poorly, foreign students as a group do better on average than the locals.

On the other hand, the 6-year bond for foreign scholars carry no such career constraints apart from the geographical one.

As I said, in another place known as the US of A, there wouldn't have been a bond to begin with. :-P Problem is that local don't seem to understand that the foreign scholarships are actually financial aid packages.

Actually, I'll repeat this again: most 1st-Class honours from NUS engineering are locals.

Can you show us the numbers?

Have you thought about attracting local students by offering financial awards?

No. I think our university enrolment is already too high.

How about offering things like free tuition/financial awards to good students who wish to study chemical engineering?

If they already wish to study chemical engineering, why throw money at them? If they don't wish to study chemical engineering, all the more shouldn't make them. The worse thing we have done in my opinion was to have tried to engineer the outputs of our universities. We almost always get it wrong one and people end up in courses they really have little love for.

Fox said...

Out of curiosity: do you have a more cost-effective way to do it?

Issue more work permits. Basically, do as what the current government does sans the scholarships for foreigners.

Tell us: why do you disagree with this assumption?

They are not needed for our universities' mission to perform research or to educate. Explain to me how these foreign undergraduates contribute to research or education.

The fact remains that most 1st class honours holder from NUS engineering are locals. NUS publishes the honours class of each graduating cohort. They give your name and your degree classification. I've looked before - most names in the 1st class honours list look very Chinese Singaporean/Malaysian a If the PRCs were really dominating, then I should have seen a greatly diminished incidence of Tans, Lims and Teos.

If you are really keen to see such numbers, go request NUS for the commencement booklet for 2007. NUS is very open about these things.

I know of at least one other faculty for which is this untrue. :-)

You must mean computing. That's hardly a surprise since most Singaporeans are not too keen to take up a career in IT given the prevalence of foreign IT workers who keep wages down. Hence, you actually have a relatively weak application pool. On the other hand, in traditional engineering disciplines like chemical engineering, where job conditions still remain attractive, you have no lack of strong Singaporean students.


As I said, in another place known as the US of A, there wouldn't have been a bond to begin with. :-P Problem is that local don't seem to understand that the foreign scholarships are actually financial aid packages.


I think they actually understand it very well. Mr Zhou's query was that why are the terms of financial aid packages to foreigners are so much more generous and accessible than what local can get.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand this. When Singaporeans (talent or non-talent) get screwed and are unhappy about things, they are always asked to leave their country of birth.

Why can't people stay and fight this inequality of life in Singapore?

The human spirit should not be so easily defeated by mere words.

I will stand here.

kwayteowman said...

Fox,

Issue more work permits. Basically, do as what the current government does sans the scholarships for foreigners.

And your people wouldn't complain that the foreigners are taking away their jobs huh?

Explain to me how these foreign undergraduates contribute to research or education.

Well, (i) despite your claims, average quality of foreign students is higher than the locals and this improves the quality of the student population and thereby the learning environment; and (ii) locals aren't often interested in research.

most names in the 1st class honours list look very Chinese Singaporean/Malaysian a If the PRCs were really dominating, then I should have seen a greatly diminished incidence of Tans, Lims and Teos.

Malaysians also considered locals? I think we separated in 1965. :-) Alamak, I thought you got dunno what evidence. Question, do you know the stats for 2nd Uppers?

You must mean computing. ... you have no lack of strong Singaporean students.

So it's okay to give scholarships to foreigners for computing and not engineering?

I think they actually understand it very well. Mr Zhou's query was that why are the terms of financial aid packages to foreigners are so much more generous and accessible than what local can get.

If he understood then he wouldn't be asking the questions he's asking. 1. What is the average family income for a local family with a college-bound child compared to that for a foreign students? 2. Does he realize that a local student has the option of staying home while a foreign student has no such option?

Fox said...

KTM,

And your people wouldn't complain that the foreigners are taking away their jobs huh?

At least we won't be spending money to help the foreigners take away their jobs. Anyway, that is a separate point.

Well, (i) despite your claims, average quality of foreign students is higher than the locals and this improves the quality of the student population and thereby the learning environment; and (ii) locals aren't often interested in research.

Nowhere and never have I ever claimed that the *average* quality of foreign students is higher than that of the locals. I do not deny that there are many many mediocre local students. That's not my point. I fully agree with you that the average quality of foreign students is higher. However, my claim was that in *absolute* numbers, the number of good local students easily surpassed that of foreign students. In *absolute* numbers, we know that most of the financial awards are given to foreign students.

I fully agree with you that having more quality students improves the learning environment although we might disagree with the extent of that improvement. Also, there are quality local and foreign students. Again, why must we improve the learning environment by recruiting foreign students? Has there been a corresponding similar effort to recruit good local students by Singapore institutions?

As for locals not being interested in research, that point is moot. Foreign students who got their undergraduate degrees from Singapore universities make up a small fraction of the postgraduate population. Most of the postgraduate population in Singapore got their degrees elsewhere.

Malaysians also considered locals? I think we separated in 1965. :-) Alamak, I thought you got dunno what evidence. Question, do you know the stats for 2nd Uppers?

The last time I checked, we don't have a freedom of information act in Singapore. This is as good as it gets. I can't tell the difference between Singaporean and Malaysian names. I try to work with what I have and what I have suggests that local/Malaysian students make up the majority of first class honours students. You were going on and on about the manifest superiority of PRC students. Guess what? I don't really see that many PRC Chinese names in the 1st class honours list. If they are so good, then the list should look like the Shanghai city phone directory.

In some faculties in our local universities, foreign students from Vietnam, China and India make up easily 25 percent of the cohort and 1st class honours is given out to the to 5 to 10 percent of each graduating cohort. Thus, if those foreign students were so manifestly superior, we can expect them to make a clean sweep of the 1st class honours list for that faculty/school. Unfortunately, no. How do you explain that?

So it's okay to give scholarships to foreigners for computing and not engineering?

No. That was not my point.

If he understood then he wouldn't be asking the questions he's asking. 1. What is the average family income for a local family with a college-bound child compared to that for a foreign students? 2. Does he realize that a local student has the option of staying home while a foreign student has no such option?

Maybe the foreign student can take out loans like the locals? If banks aren't willing to lend the money, the government can provide guarantees for the loan or give the loans themselves? Then we can do away with the bond too.

Oh, maybe we'll get fewer foreign students coming into Singapore that way. Why? Because they don't like being saddled with debts after graduation? Well, neither do the locals.

kwayteowman said...

Fox,

In *absolute* numbers, we know that most of the financial awards are given to foreign students.

Perhaps that's because they need it more??

Has there been a corresponding similar effort to recruit good local students by Singapore institutions?

Harlo? You have any idea how many locals the universities already take in? You think the ones who currently can't get in will improve the quality of the student population? And suppose the various faculties end up competing for students by offering more money, does it improve the overall quality?

As for locals not being interested in research, that point is moot. Foreign students who got their undergraduate degrees from Singapore universities make up a small fraction of the postgraduate population.

Foreign undergrads are more likely to stay on for grad school in Singapore - this is my impression and I'm quite sure I'm correct, though I don't have the figures to prove it unfortunately.

if those foreign students were so manifestly superior, we can expect them to make a clean sweep of the 1st class honours list for that faculty/school. Unfortunately, no. How do you explain that?

Maybe local students are not all stupid? What kind of a question is that? :-P

Oh, maybe we'll get fewer foreign students coming into Singapore that way. Why? Because they don't like being saddled with debts after graduation?

You're probably right. :-) Precisely, it's a market rate thing and at this point the Govt probably thinks it's important to get more foreign students into the local universities (I'm guessing, but it probably can't be too far from the truth). This is a view that I agree with, unlike you. :-P

Well, neither do the locals.

So you don't have to take it too personally. It really isn't about you. As a tax payer, I see no reason why you should be given more money if you don't really need to be given that money. :-P Just so that you can feel more *shiok* ain't a good enough reason to me.

Thought experiment: suppose the foreign students didn't exist, would you then have a "right" to feel the way you do and the Govt wouldn't have to give you more?

If the Govt could get away with not giving a single cent to have the foreign students come, you think it wouldn't huh? Given the penny-pinching ways of the present administration, I believe the answer is a given.

Fundamentally we disagree on whether we need to import foreign students and that's the crux of the issue. Thank you for entertaining me. :-)

Fox said...

Perhaps that's because they need it more??

Again, it depends on what you mean by 'need'. This is where we must disagree.


And suppose the various faculties end up competing for students by offering more money, does it improve the overall quality?

I thought you said that the application pool our universities were getting depleted by people going overseas? If local universities work towards providing a credible, financially attractive alternative, then it should be able to arrest some of that depletion.

Foreign undergrads are more likely to stay on for grad school in Singapore - this is my impression and I'm quite sure I'm correct, though I don't have the figures to prove it unfortunately.

It is not surprising that foreign undergrads are more likely to stay on. They have a bond to fulfill. It's not because they are intrinsically more interested in research; it's more like boh pian. Locals who are just as interested in postgraduate research have the option of leaving.

Also, you ignore the fact that MOST postgraduate students in our locals universities got their degrees outside of Singapore.

You're probably right. :-) Precisely, it's a market rate thing and at this point the Govt probably thinks it's important to get more foreign students into the local universities (I'm guessing, but it probably can't be too far from the truth). This is a view that I agree with, unlike you. :-P

You are entitled to your views. However, regardless of what the government thinks about the importance of getting foreign students into the local universities, I have seen no credible justification.

It really isn't about you. As a tax payer, I see no reason why you should be given more money if you don't really need to be given that money. :-P Just so that you can feel more *shiok* ain't a good enough reason to me.

It isn't about getting more money. It's about equal treatment. Ultimately, it boils down to this: if Mr Zhou is just as well-qualified as his PRC classmate, why do they receive unequal treatment?


If the Govt could get away with not giving a single cent to have the foreign students come, you think it wouldn't huh? Given the penny-pinching ways of the present administration, I believe the answer is a given.

There are at least two reason to believe that the government might be wrong:

1. Government policies can sometimes be penny-wise but pound-foolish. You see that with the closing of Buangkok station along the NE line. It might make financial sense to keep the station closed but in the long run, you undermine the official economically more efficient policy to get people to switch to public transport.

Similary, the unequal treatment accorded to local and foreign students might be a cheaper way of siphoning talent from China and India but in the long run, it damages the emotional link Singaporeans have for Singapore. What is worst is that the people who suffer from this unequal treatment are bright young Singaporeans who are just as talented as their foreign-scholars counterparts in our locals universities and justifiably see that they are being discriminated on the basis of them being Singaporeans.

2. Policies that made sense in 1998 might not make sense in 2008. For example, in 1998, university education in China was much less accessible and overseas travel was restricted for most China nationals. Thus, a Singapore scholarship would be attractive to a hungry bright Chinese high school student. It might make sense to import PRC high school students into our universities instead of PRC graduate workers since a Singapore education allows people to acquire better English skills.Fastforward to 2008. China now has a glut of university graduates. There is no need to import PRC high school students and subsidize their education when you can get a PRC graduate worker off the rack. The university education in China might have changed so much so that it is now a better fit for our desired workfore (which it might not have been 10 years ago).

In 1998, it was possible to import PRC high school students who might have otherwise gone to top-tier PRC universities. It practically ceased to be so in 2004. I was an lab instructor back for an SM3 class then and based on the conversations I had, all the students I talked to were picked from 2nd-tier PRC universities like Zhongshan university. I speculate that the quality of the PRC imports is probably worsening.

The current glut of university graduates in China probably obviates the need to import pre-graduate PRC nationals to supplement Singapore's workforce.

twasher said...

The mentions of Harvard are red herrings. Harvard, and all the other US universities that offer financial aid (not scholarships) to international students, are private universities. They have an interest in enriching their student populations and their finances are provided by private sources, not tax revenue. If NUS/NTU were private universities I wouldn't care how many foreigners they want to support here. What makes the situation in Sg even more reprehensible is the lack of transparency referred to by Fox. There has not been anything resembling a strong case made for the benefits to taxpayers from their involuntary 'investments' in the education of foreigners. By a strong case, I mean actually considering the alternatives, like special work-permit programs for the glut of Chinese graduates. I also have seen no studies done on whether the foreigners sponsored here contribute 'more' than snubbed locals who, say, go to Australia for their undergrad and return here to work.

More generally, the burden of proof is on the people spending the money, not on those criticising the policy. So I think Fox is on the stronger ground here when he takes a skeptical stance --- if no one has any hard figures to back up their stance, then the default stance should be not to spend the money. Show me your plan, argue rigorously why it's better, and then we'll talk.