Foreign student numbers drop sharply after climbing steadily

A TARGET to attract 150,000 international students here by 2015 may have to be put on hold as their numbers have dropped significantly after seeing a steady climb over several years.

Figures obtained by The Straits Times suggest that as of July, there were only 84,000 such students enrolled in private and government-run schools and institutions, including the polytechnics and universities. Four years ago, in 2008, the number stood at close to 100,000.

The numbers were released to The Straits Times by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, which issues visas for foreigners applying to study here. The July figure excludes the children of expatriate parents who hold dependant passes and are enrolled in "foreign system schools", such as the United World College and Singapore American School.

The government bloc has seen the largest drop in foreign students - to some 51,000 now. Four years ago, the figure was well above 55,000, according to student recruitment agents.

The remaining number of about 33,000 foreigners are studying in private schools, such as the Singapore Institute of Management and PSB Academy. Four years ago, the figure was well above 35,000, said the agents.

The industry usually cites ballpark numbers as the authorities have never released exact figures.

Student recruiters attribute the drop largely to two factors: the Government putting a cap on the number of foreign students being admitted into public schools and institutions, and stricter regulations for private schools that have led to half of them shutting down.

They also note that fewer foreigners are applying to study at government-run schools and institutions here because of a hefty hike in fees for foreigners.

The three universities, five polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) raised tuition fees this year, with the heftiest hikes levied on foreigners.

Foreign students at polytechnics pay $7,500 a year, 28 per cent more than the fees last year, while those enrolling in full-time Nitec courses this year at ITE pay $10,000 a year, up from $3,740.

Some 10 years ago, the Government set a target of hosting 150,000 international students by 2015, as part of its plan to grow Singapore as a top education hub.

But growing unease among Singaporeans on the influx of foreigners led to a cap.

The Education Ministry announced last year that the number of foreign students in universities would fall from the current 18per cent to 15per cent by 2015, even as more places are created for Singaporeans.

Education Unlimited Singapore, an agency that matches foreign students to schools, says many foreign students are now considering other destinations such as Australia and Malaysia.

Said general manager Gregory Lye: "The government schools, polytechnics and universities were the first choice for many foreigners, as they were high-quality and cheap compared to many other study destinations.

"Now, the fees have gone up considerably. Even if they can afford the fees, they are not sure of getting a place."

When contacted, the Economic Development Board, a key agency behind the hub plan did not say whether the 2015 target had been put off. It would say only that it "will continue to diversify Singapore's educational offerings, with an emphasis on building industry-relevant capabilities".

sandra@sph.com.sg


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