SINGAPORE — The Ministry of Education (MOE) will be investing an additional $44 million per annum in government bursaries for higher education, bringing the total to $167 million starting from the next academic year.
This sum - an increase of about 36 per cent - is based on current application patterns and may increase in the future, noted Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Thursday (22 August) at a media briefing held at the ministry’s headquarters.
About 55,000 Singaporeans, both existing and new students, are set to benefit from these bursary enhancements each year, he added, a projected increase of around 10 per cent from the academic year in 2018.
Of this, an estimated 30,000 will be from families in the lowest 30 per cent income bracket.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first announced during the annual National Day Rally last Sunday that government bursaries will be significantly enhanced for eligible full-time students from universities, polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and Lasalle College of the Arts.
For university students undertaking general degree courses, these bursaries will cover up to 75 per cent, or $6,200, of their tuition fees, up from a current maximum of 50 per cent.
This would mean students in the 20 per cent percentile income group - the highest bursary tier - will only need to pay $2,000 per annum, down from $4,200 today.
Similarly, bursaries for polytechnic students will also increase to cover up to 95 per cent, or $2,750, of their tuition fees, up from a current maximum of 80 per cent.
As such, lower-income students on the highest bursary tier will only need to pay $150 per annum, down from $550 today.
Huge jump in medical and dentistry bursaries
Government bursaries for medical and dentistry studies have also been increased to a maximum of $20,700, more than five times the current maximum of $4,000, so that lower-income students would not be deterred from specialising in them, said Ong.
Currently, about 11 per cent of those pursuing these degrees, the costliest among all undergraduate courses, come from households in the lowest 30 per cent income bracket.
The increased bursaries will mean that such students only need to pay up to $5,000 per annum if they qualify for the highest bursary tier, significantly lower than the current $24,900 at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and $30,700 at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Ong noted that the high costs for these degrees are due to several factors: the labs and materials required, the costs of teachers who are often practising doctors, and the mandatory critical attachment and training at hospitals.
Apart from that, another reason why these students enjoy higher bursaries compared with their peers is because they are bonded to restructured hospitals and will have to work within the public healthcare system, he added.
Overall, he noted that the government has reached a “good landing point” where the “cost structure of university courses and cost apportionment between what government funds and students pay are quite reasonable”.
“Which is why (in the current academic year), about 90 per cent of the courses did not have increase in fees. In future, will this (percentage) be forever freezed? I don’t think so, because there is cost inflation which we should expect...but what you will see is that adjustments will be smaller and maybe not as frequent,” Ong said.
“Every time there’s an adjustment, it applies on a cohort-basis, not an intake-basis. This is important for students because the course fee they see when they apply will last them until they graduate,” he added.
“And if there are adjustments, we will make sure we will adjust the bursary (sum) as well, so that the net cost fee will remain unchanged for the student.”
Separately, government bursaries will be renamed in the next academic year to better reflect their intended use: the fully government-funded MOE Bursary will be called the Higher Education Bursary, while the Community Development Council/Citizens' Consultative Committee (CDC/CCC) Bursary will be called the Higher Education Community Bursary.
Lower fees at SUSS, SIT; more upgrading pathways for ITE graduates
At the same time, Singapore’s two newest universities, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) and the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), will be lowering their school fees for general degree courses from $7,860 and $8,190 respectively, to $7,500.
This will benefit about 80 per cent, or 2,400, of SUSS students and about 20 per cent, or 1,500, of SIT students, said Ong, noting that the lower percentage for the latter is because majority of its courses are conducted in conjunction with overseas university partners, which incur additional costs.
“Over time, some of these courses will transition to become SIT-conferred general courses and when they do so, they will be under the new course fee structure,” he added.
By 2030, all ITE graduates will also have opportunities to upgrade their Nitec qualifications over the course of their careers, said the MOE.
Currently, eight in 10 economically active ITE graduates find employment after completing school within six months, though 30 per cent of them do not pursue upgrading pathways.
Ong said that the ministry will help support them by increasing the number of places in various programmes.
This means an additional 580 spots in the ITE’s SkillsFuture work-study diplomas, 860 more places in full-time higher Nitec programmes as well as 290 more vacancies in full-time polytechnic diploma courses for working adults.
Collectively, these would benefit about 1,700 ITE graduates per annum by 2030.
Bridging social-economic gap
Such various enhancements are part of the government’s continued efforts to invest in the younger generation so as to allow them to “develop skills relevant for the future and chart attractive careers for themselves”, said Ong.
Sakthivel Kuppusamy, a first-year student at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, will be one of the 55,000 Singaporeans benefitting from the enhanced bursaries next year. The 19-year-old’s father, a chauffeur, is the sole breadwinner of the household.
“With these enhanced bursaries, I can now focus on pursuing my passion in medicine to serve the community, while helping to alleviate my family’s financial difficulties,” said Sakthivel, who is an only child.
Jason Tan, associate professor of policy and leadership studies at the National Institute of Education, noted that the slew of measures by the MOE is a step “in the right direction” in its bid to increase socio-economic diversity across schools.
But he stressed that these measures are not in themselves solutions to tackle existing underrepresentation and gaps in the education system.
For instance, the increased bursaries for lower-income students specialising in medicine or dentistry would only address financial hurdles at their point of admission.
“The (various enhancements) work along with a whole range of other measures, reaching back to the early years,” said Prof Tan, citing other efforts such as the new Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) grading system and increased affordability for pre-school education.
“The social-economic gap manifests even before the point of admission.”