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Tertiary Tuition Fee Hike in Singapore

A more expensive Singapore, a more expensive university education


Whats all the buzz about ?

At a time when voices critical of many government policies are on the rise, the recent announcement for increasing university tuition fees for the next academic year only adds to people’s complaints. The hikes in tuition fee, however, are differentiated for Singaporeans, PRs and foreigners, with local students facing around 1-2% increase in fee and international students facing around 10% increase in fee. The raising of fee this year is but one of the series of increases in tuition fee for tertiary education in recent decade. While debate about this issue has been charged with emotion, it helps if we can analyze the issue more objectively and see if the justifications provided by universities are acceptable.

Why the increase ?

Tertiary Tuition Fee Hike in Singapore

Tertiary Tuition Fee Hike in Singapore

As said by Professor Tan Eng Chye, NUS Provost and Deputy President (Academic Affairs), part of the increase in fee is used to defray the operation cost. Operation cost may consist of bills for utility, wages for office administrative staff or IT support staff, purchases for public facilities as simple as study benches around the campus. There are two reasons

contributing to the rise in operation cost. The universities are expanding, as they build more lecture theaters and accommodations. The biggest expansion of universities in recent years may be the completion of U-town by NUS, a comprehensive and modern residential learning environment. The rate of expansion is greater than the rate of increase in student intake, which only rises marginally from year to year. The per student share of operation cost of universities, as a matter of arithmetic, will increase as a result. The second reason, perhaps the more important one, is the general inflation the whole country is experiencing. Even without the expansion of universities, the prices of electricity and other public amenities keep rising, and the wages for office staff also need to be raised to compensate the rising cost of living. Under the general context of inflation, it is even expected that the cost of education will go up.

What about the government?

However, the rising cost of education does not necessarily translate into rising tuition fee. The students do not necessarily have to bear the brunt of inflation. For example, the government could have given more funding to the universities so as to compensate for the increasing cost of operation. But such a measure also incurs cost on the government who faces an increasingly tight budget if all sectors of the economy are claiming greater funding due to inflation. Under the philosophy of Singapore government, the provision of many social welfare, such as healthcare and education, is a ‘shared responsibility’ between the government and the citizens. Singapore does not see itself as a welfare state. And the 1-2% moderate increase in tuition fee for Singaporeans may well be a manifestation of such policymaking philosophy, as it is reasonable to infer that the government also increases its funding to tertiary institutions while passing part of the burden to citizens to defray the cost.

Some light amidst the gloom

There are mitigating measures to be made to alleviate the burden on Singaporean families. Together with the announcement for increasing tuition fee, universities also announced their plan to increase financial assistance to needy students. For example, NUS has made the assurance to students and their families that the institution remains committed that no deserving student is denied the opportunity of an NUS education because of financial difficulties. So it provides a comprehensive range of financial assistance schemes – such as Tuition Fee Loan, NUS Study Loan, NUS/MOE Bursary, Work-Study Assistance, as well as NUS Student Assistance Loan. This is definitely a laudable move as increased tuition fee, no matter how moderate it is, is going to affect lower-income families disproportionately, as their expenses to support their children’s higher education have already taken a significant portion of their income. While middle-income families may complain about the hike, their children do not face the real problem of affordability when tuition fee increases for at most 2%. By concentrating more resources for students with financial needs, we make sure equal access to tertiary education and no one is left behind even when tertiary education has become more expensive.

What could have been done ?

Besides providing more financial aid as a mitigating measure, in the long run the university should aim to streamline its operation so as to reduce their expenses in those areas. Streamlining operation has been a popular topic of discussion in modern management, especially in private sector such as banks where competition for profit margin is intense. While universities do not face the pressure for survival, they should still have the urgency to reduce cost and pass on the benefits of more efficient operation to students. For example, the universities can consider further integrating computer technology and automation to enhance the productivity of staff, making operation department smaller in size. They can also consider utilizing green technology, something the NTU is currently exploring, to enhance energy efficiency of buildings and reduce utility cost.

Tertiary education is something close to the heart of Singaporeans. A degree from university opens many doors for a Singapore student. That’s why so many students fight hard to get a place in university, and it is disheartening for us to see some students with financial needs struggling with rising tuition fee. We need to ensure the affordability of education, a key prerequisite to meritocracy where students compete in the basis of their abilities, not on the financial conditions of their families.

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