What’s in store for international students

About one in five undergraduates at Singapore universities is an international student.  More will be arriving next month when the new academic year begins. They will have to grin and bear a growing resentment against foreigners. A young Singaporean journalist recently candidly admitted having mixed feelings about foreigners competing with locals in the classroom, workplace and the property market.

It’s significant she wrote this in The Straits Times, Singapore’s leading English daily, which is never at odds with the government.  Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken about the need to reduce the influx of foreigners.

High achievers can take heart, though.  Singapore still “needs to bring in talent from around the world”, he said, “to create a better future for us”.

International students with an excellent academic record can get scholarships and government grants because Singapore wants the brightest and the best.  But this selectivity weeds out some of the local students, who can’t get a place in the universities unless they make the grade. So the resentment against foreigners is not without reason.

The competition can be stifling – even for elbow room. The MRT trains can be as crowded as the Metro in Kolkata. The population has grown by nearly a million to more than 4.9 million in the last 10 years. But the number of Singaporeans has risen only from 3.2 million to 3.7 million. The rest are foreigners.  And since they include senior executives and wealthy businessmen, property prices have gone through the roof. Young Singaporeans complain they can’t afford their dream homes.

One should remember, though, the median monthly income in Singapore – earned by half the workers – is S$2,400: more than Rs 80,000. Even though the money doesn’t go as far as in Kolkata, Singaporeans can still afford the gizmos and gadgets they crave. I recall a report in The Straits Times last year that the iPhone had lost its cool factor because it wasn’t expensive enough.

Gadget-loving young Indians will take to Singapore like fish to water, and not only because of the technology. It does feel like home when you can get idli and dosa at almost any hawker centre and catch the latest Bollywood blockbuster at the local cinema. The young undergraduates arriving next month will have to concentrate on their studies, of course. Congratulations, guys. We know how selective the universities are. The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) accept only students with excellent grades; there’s no separate entrance test.  The Singapore Management University (SMU) requires applicants to pass the SAT just like American colleges.

I have met young Indians who are happy and proud to be studying here.  NUS was ranked 30th and NTU 73rd on the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings last year.  Even renowned institutions  like Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles ranked lower than NUS. They were judged on their academics’ reputation and research work, employers’ views on their graduates and the student-faculty ratio among other things.  The Singapore universities did well partly because of their international students and international faculty. NUS academics, in particular, are highly regarded in their fields.

But Singapore universities are not among the top 100 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. This is a list compiled by China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which looks at whether there are Nobel  Prize winners among the alumni and the faculty and whether a university has highly cited researchers whose work has appeared in prestigious journal s such as Nature and Science. The Indian Institute of Science and IIT, Kharagpur, are both ranked higher in their fields than NTU on this list.

Most young Singaporeans, if they win government scholarships, prefer to study in America and Britain. But a Singapore education is a good deal, nevertheless. It’s a lot cheaper than studying in the West. International students, if not on a scholarship, can get a tuition grant from the Ministry of Education to cover their expenses. In exchange, they are bonded to work in a Singapore-registered company for three years after their graduation. That’s okay. Some stay on in Singapore after serving their bonds.

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