The Impact of International Students in NUS/NTU/SMU
By Huichieh on 15 Sep 2006 9:45 AM
Haloscan Comments Closed

In what ways and to what extent--if at all--has the local student been adversely affected by the influx of international students in the local universities over the past decade? It's a topic I blogged about before on the old site. But a recent post at KTM's pushed me to take another look at the statistics, look up information that I now have access to (think NUS library), and to update my attempted analysis in the hope that discussions could be fruitfully furthered by tying it to known public domain data.

I am hoping to eventually answer the following three questions, and if not to conclusively answer them, at least to lay out what objective data available relevant to each:

(1) Has the increased intake of international students in NUS/NTU/SMU since the late 1990s made it harder--in general--for the local student (i.e., a student graduating from a local JC or Polytechnic) to enter the local universities? Or more colloquially: Have foreigners been depriving locals of places in the local universities?

(2) Has the influx of international students made it harder for the local student to enter specific courses in the local universities? I will consider Engineering and Science in particular, since that seems to be where the impact of the international students is most keenly felt.

(3) Has the influx of international students adversely affected the quality of the local students' education experience, and if so, how?

It must be emphasized that the three questions are logically distinct: the answers for them need not go together. For instance, while I will tentatively argue that--with respect to question (1)--it has not become harder for the local student to enter NUS/NTU/SMU in general, it is entirely possible that it has become harder for the local student to gain a place in specific courses, or for his or her student experience to be adversely affected in myriad other ways on account of the influx of international students. Whether or not there is any objective basis for those other conclusions will have to be the subject of further investigation. In this post, I will only consider (1); leaving (2) and (3) to future posts (if I ever get around to them).

Caveats: I am not a professional statistician; nor are you paying to read this site, are you? But any suggestions and corrections would be most welcome. More importantly, the conclusion is going to be tentative, perhaps even slightly inconclusive. If what you want is a clear cut answer, you can spare yourself the trouble of reading on (don't say that I did not warn you).

* * * * *

To repeat my first question: Has the increased intake of international students in NUS/NTU/SMU since the late 1990s made it harder--in general--for the local student (i.e., a student graduating from a local JC or Polytechnic) to enter the local universities? Or more colloquially: Have foreigners been depriving locals of places in the local universities?

There is a short answer: "Supposedly No".

As far as I know, it is a matter of policy that for university admissions, the local and international intakes do not compete in the same race and consequently, they do not affect the outcome of each other. The whole point about there being distinct admission criteria is precisely that whatever happens at the international intake end, it is not going to affect the local applicant. This point has been made by external observers as well:

In 2000, the Minister Rear Education reported that both NUS and NTU had met their targets of 20 per cent enrollment of international students. This appears to be the limit at which the Government is prepared to subsidise the program to achieve goals associated with building the reputation of Singapore's institutions. Public perception is that the increasing numbers of international students are depriving locals of places, but it is clear that the Government's international student program is a separate 'package' running parallel to the education of local students. (Sanderson, 97)
Indeed, as reported by a Straits Times article ("Foreign students 'don't deprive locals of places'", 23 February 2000):
The foreigners enrolled in universities and polytechnics here do not deprive locals of places, the Education Ministry said again yesterday. So any increase in foreign students will not be at the expense of locals, Senior Minister of State (Education) Aline Wong told the House yesterday... All local students who qualify will have a place in Singapore's educational institutions and Singaporeans get priority in primary and secondary schools and junior colleges.
That is, the local applicant competes with his or her peers in the graduating JC/Poly cohort, as it has always been the case; and his or her admission is ultimately the outcome of that competition alone. The addition of the parallel track of international students does not make it easier or harder for the local to compete in his (or her) race against other locals.

But there is one thing just beginning to emerge that may well become more crucial over time, and that will impact the local student's chances of entering NUS/NTU/SMU. This is from a Forum Page letter ("More varsity places part of reform", 12 Jan, 2005), written by Lim Chee Hwee, Director of Higher Education:

Currently, about 21 per cent of the primary one cohort every year enters our local universities. Of this number, about 2 percentage points come from the polytechnic route while the remaining 19 percentage points come from the junior college route. By 2010, when the projected 25 per cent of the primary one cohort is admitted into our local universities, the polytechnic route's share will be increased from 2 percentage points to 6 percentage points. This translates into a tripling of the number of polytechnic graduates admitted into our local universities.
It is entirely believable that, over time, the 'A'-Level graduate is going to face an increasing competition--from the Polytechnic graduates--in gaining admission to the local universities. This impression is further reinforced when one hears from a ranking university official that NUS aims to, over time, take the best of the Polytechnic applicants in replacement of the worst of the 'A'-Level applicants. This is good news for prospective Polytechnic students, less good news for prospective 'A'-Level students; and it has nothing to do with the international students in NUS at all.

So much for the "short answer"; but let me now consider some data.

I will proceed in two stages. First, let me reconstruct the size of the pool of local students eligible to apply for a place in the local universities over time ("Local Pool"). There are two main components: students with at least 2 'A' and 2 'AO' Level Passes (including General Paper), and the top 5% of the Polytechnic graduates. Both historical series can be derived from the Education Statistics Digest Online:

Table 1: The Local Pool

A few explanations: First, the number of eligible Poly graduates for 2005 and 2006 (in red) are estimates based upon the average annual growth (since the number of Poly graduates for those years are not available). Second, the number of students in the local pool in a particular year (in red) is calculated by adding the number of eligible 'A' Level graduates from the previous year (since a student who takes his or her 'A' Levels in year X normally applies to university in year X+1) to the number of eligible Poly graduates for that year. Third, I've rounded the raw numbers in "Local Pool" up to the nearest hundred to reflect the fact that everything is, despite appearances, very inexact. What's important will be the trend rather than the actual numbers.

Commenting on an earlier draft of this post, Kway Teow Man pointed out that the Local Pool may be smaller than I make it out to be given the (possibly increasing number of) local students who goes overseas for their university education. This is correct, though I would rather not build that into my presentation: the "Local Pool" gives us a sense of the upper limit of local students who might want to enroll in one of the local universities, rather than actual numbers. Furthermore, some, but not all, of those who go overseas go because they were turned down by NUS/NTU/SMU. These considerations tend my presentation towards a "worse case scenario"; the actual situation is likely to be better once those bound for overseas (willingly) have been factored out.

Now for stage two: I need to find out the intake numbers for the local universities in the same time period. The figures for 1992-2004 are available from the Education Statistics Digest Online and other sources:

Table 2: Local Intake

The number of local students who are enrolled as freshmen ("Local Intake"; blue) is calculated from the total intake minus the percentage consisting of foreign students. Unfortunately, exact numbers of the latter are not available. What is known is that in 1998, the first year in which the new emphasis on attracting international students was implemented, the universities achieved 16.5% foreign undergraduate intake and that by 2000, the target of 20% has been reached (Sanderson, 97) and I will assumed that it has been maintained ever since. Thirdly, prior to 1998, "the inflow of foreign students stagnated at around 10% of the undergraduate intake" (Teo Chee Hean, 31 July 1998).

Putting the data together into one graph, we have this:

Chart 1: Historical Trend of Local Pool vs. Local Intake

The general impression is this: the Local Intake has pretty much kept pace with changes to the Local Pool even after factoring out the places that has been taken by international students. In addition, if we calculate the ratio of Local Pool to Local Intake expressed as a percentage, we get the following series:

Table 3: Local Intake as a Percentage of Local Intake

Notice that prior to 1996, the number of students in the Local Intake is less than 80% of the Local Pool--as low as 63% in 1992. From 1996 onwards, it has never dip below 80%, while reaching the high 80s and even 90+% in those years in which there is a drop in the Local Pool (compared to previous years; 1996-1998, 2005).

Now the initiative to recruit more international students began in 1998 and first achieved its targeted numbers (20% of intake) in 2000, and interestingly enough, those are also the same years where the locals have it best in the series. From 2001 onwards, things appear to have stablised (at slightly above the 80% mark).

As far as I can tell, the objective data is certainly consistent with the claim that the influx of international students from 1998 onwards have not adversely affected the chances of the local students in gaining entry into the universities. While there are better and worse years for the local, his position today is that of steady improvement over the situation in the early 1990s. Conversely, if it were the case that foreigners had been depriving locals of places in the local universities (in general, as opposed to in specific courses), that phenomenon is not showing up in the objective data.

We might think of it this way. In 1992, a teacher who tells his 'A'-Level class: "Look to your left and right; only 6 or 7 out of every ten of you will enter NUS or NTU" would be making a true statement. By 1993-1995, he would have to say "7 or 8 out of every ten" and from 1996 onwards, "8 or 9 out of every ten".

There is one more piece of data that I will consider before closing. There is a historical series charting the percentage of the P1 Cohort who was admitted to the local universities, which can be plotted on a graph:

Chart 2: Percentage of P1 Cohort Admitted to NUS/NTU/SMU

(The data for 1980-1007 is from Teo Chee Hean, 27 Dec 1997; that for 2001-2005 is from Education Statistics Digest 2006, ix, and the projection for 2010 from Lim Chee Hwee; see references at the end of this post. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the data for 1998-2000 (if you come across the relevant information, do drop me a line), but we can probably take it as a slow upward march from the 20.4% of 1997 to the 22.1% of 2001.)

A cursory glance tells us this much: there was a steady increase in the percentage of the P1 Cohort who was admitted to the local universities from 1980 onwards. The increase was sharper from 1980 to around 1996/97 and more gradual after that. By the 2000s, it has stabilized at around 21-22%, though that number is projected to increase to about 25% by 2010. What does this mean?

The percentage of the P1 Cohort who was admitted to NUS/NTU in 1980 was 5%. That is, when the students of that intake (1980) were in P1 (say, 1968), a teacher who said to them: "Look to your left and your right; only one in 20 among you will go to (a local) university" would have told the truth. From the 1996 university intake onwards, the teacher would have to say to them: "...only one in 5 among you will go to (a local) university".

There must be a sense in which it is true that more Singaporeans are entering the local universities than before, that it has not only not become harder but in some sense easier for the local student to enter university than ever before.


- Ministry of Education Website, Education Statistics Digest 2006 (.pdf file).

- Ministry of Education Website, Education Statistics Digest Online.

- G. Sanderson, "International Education Developments in Singapore", International Education Journal 3.2 (July 2002): 85-103 (.pdf file).

- RADM Teo Chee Hean (Minister for Education), Keynote Address at the Second Malay Activity Executive Committee Co-ordinating Council (MESRA) National Education Seminar, 27 Dec 1997 (Archived).

- RADM Teo Chee Hean (Minister For Education), "Singapore As A Hub For Higher Education", Speech given at the Fulbright Association (Singapore) Talk On 31 July 1998 At NUSS Orchard Guild House (Archived).

- Tan Ooi Boon et al, "Foreign students 'don't deprive locals of places'", Straits Times (23 February 2000)

- Lim Chee Hwee (Director of Higher Education), "More varsity places part of reform", Straits Times (12 Jan, 2005) (Archived).

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