Broader financial support doesn't mean more students are poor

Broader financial support doesn't mean more students are poor

Professor Tommy Koh's commentary ("Three wishes for the New Year"; last Saturday) had useful insights. However, it also contained glaring assertions that should have been fact-checked before publication.

First, Prof Koh alleges that "about a third of our students go to school with no pocket money to buy lunch".

We know of no study that substantiates this, nor does our teachers' experience bear out this alarming picture.

Second, he says "the president of one of our universities told us recently that 60 per cent of his students need financial assistance".

Prof Koh may have confused the number of financially needy students with the fact that the Government has deliberately extended bursary support to both poor and middle-income students at our universities.

As part of our measures to promote social mobility, students from households up to the 66th percentile in monthly household per capita income - or about $7,600 per month for a household of four - are eligible for government bursaries.

The fact is that the Government has broadened financial support in both our schools and universities beyond lower-income families to cover the middle-income group.

For example, the Ministry of Education's Financial Assistance Scheme in schools has been extended to households with income of $2,500 per month, from $1,500 previously. The Edusave Merit Bursary, which was raised from $4,000 to $5,000 per month, and the Independent School Bursary, which covers up to $7,200, provide for up to middle-income families.

Furthermore, each school now gets enhanced government support, such as through our Opportunity Fund and grants of up to $30,000 annually for schools to help students in various ways, including pocket money and meals.

Community efforts, such as The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund, augment these measures. Indeed, with the enhancement of government support, community efforts have also been broadened to reach more students in our schools.

It is hence by design that many lower- and middle-income students in both schools and tertiary institutions now qualify for financial support, as we strive to ensure equal opportunities regardless of home backgrounds.

One would have expected Prof Koh to welcome this greater progressivity in the Government's policies, and not mistake it as meaning that "many of our children are growing up in poverty".

Ho Hwei Ling (Ms)

Press Secretary to Minister for Education

Ministry of Education

PROF TOMMY KOH REPLIES: The two figures were given to me by two knowledgeable individuals who have since told me the information was inaccurate. My article may thus have over-represented the extent of student poverty. I acknowledge, too, that the Government has acted on this front.

Still, one cannot deny that student poverty exists. The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund helps more than 10,000 students each year.

I am a trustee of the Lee Wee Kheng Charitable Trust. Each year, we donate about $1 million to help needy students in our schools. The Ministry of Education helps identify the 100 schools with the highest number of needy students, and we give $10,000 to each of the schools.

I am also a trustee of the Tan Chay Bing Education Trust. We give bursaries and scholarships to needy students in the universities, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, LaSalle, Shatec, the Intercultural Institute and others. The bursaries are a lifeline to some. Without our help, they would most likely have to abandon their studies or work part-time. The needs exceed our ability to help.

This article was first published on Jan 9, 2015.
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