Widen scholarship pipeline

Cast net wider for other talent beyond the academic. Create an "open" pool of scholarships that lets graduates choose which agency they want to serve in. The government scholarship system needs some tweaking if it's not to lose its allure

Is the practice of giving out scholarships to 18-year-olds to study at top universities overseas and then "bonding" them to serve in public sector organisations after graduation still a viable way to attract and retain talent for the public sector?

Several things have changed in recent years that once again brings up this issue.

Demand for bonded scholarships appears to be plateauing: Applications for the prestigious Public Service Commission (PSC) scholarships - which lead to top civil service jobs - hovered in the last four years around 2,000 to 2,500 yearly.

Students are instead taking up scholarships from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore that pay for overseas stints, but which do not carry a bond.

Others such as OCBC Bank and the Jardine Foundation have also seen rising demand for their bond-free awards.

Then there are periodic bouts of returning scholars expressing unhappiness over their bonds.

The latest was Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) scientist Eng Kai Er. She wanted to transfer her six-year bond from A*Star to the National Arts Council (NAC) as her interest had shifted to the arts but was not allowed to. Vexed, she started an arts grant, ostensibly "to change the world by having more instances of paid jobs aligned with people's interest".

She was roundly criticised for wasting taxpayers' money by accepting science scholarships, but her case also raised relevant questions - whether people as young as 18 should be made to commit themselves to a bond.

Also, as one Straits Times reader asked - is the enormous sum of money the public sector spends on scholarships each year still giving good returns to Singapore?

When approached last week for this article, the PSC and several statutory boards and government-linked bodies declined to reveal what proportion of their scholarship students fail to serve the full bond period. Nor would they disclose figures on how many remained with the organisation after the bonds are served.

All insist their bond breakage rate is low. They also say they give flexibility to scholars to find their fit within their organisations or the field they were trained in.

The declining allure of government scholarships is in stark contrast to the 1960s.

Then, the awards were vital in creating a pool of talent from the largely uneducated local population for a civil service vacated by outgoing British expatriates.

Getting the scholarships was a big deal, representing for many the chance of a lifetime to study overseas and a chance for a public service career that could propel an entire family out of poverty.

These days, numerous scholarship offers vie for the attention of top students. Youngsters with rich parents who can fund their overseas studies do not need scholarships tied to a civil service job.

To be sure, the system has served Singapore well in producing a long list of permanent secretaries, statutory board heads and army chiefs. Of the current Cabinet, more than half were government scholarship holders.

For the scholarship system to continue to attract future leaders, however, some things need to change. For one, the process of applying for, and accepting, a scholarship has to change.

Currently, students are identified as having scholarship potential in the first year of junior college. They are then guided by their teachers on identifying the right universities, degree courses and scholarships they should aim for.

It is then not surprising that they end up viewing scholarships as their due - akin to a medal after a hard-won race - rather than an honour conferred upon them by the nation, that comes with a moral obligation to give back.

There is also the question of whether using academic potential to pick future civil service leaders is desirable. Instead, the scholarship net should be cast wider to include those who show promise in other areas, such as sports and the arts.

Awards can also go to those who show leadership qualities and willingness to serve society. And how about schemes to groom potential scholarship holders in the polytechnics?

Widening the net will lead to a better mix of civil service leaders more in touch with the expectations of an increasingly variegated Singapore population.

Another suggestion that has been picked up by some government agencies is to delay the timing of the scholarship.

Rather than pick these students in the pre-university period, scholarship students can be identified when they are already at university and know better where their interests and talents lie, and have more maturity to commit themselves to a bond.

Another solution is to create an "open" pool of scholarships that would allow graduates to go into any job in government or government-related agencies. Rather than have, say, A*Star or the NAC give out silo awards for their own agencies, thus competing for scholars, such a scheme would award scholarships to a number of students, who would then be matched to the right agency when they graduate, based on their interest and aptitude and subject to the organisations' needs.

Even if it means going from science research into the arts or sports, as long as the returning student serves the public, it should be considered a plus point.

And for those unsure about whether they want a government job, how about extending interest-free government loans to finance their education?

If they don't want to join the civil service, they have to pay back the loan. If they choose to serve in government, then it can be converted into a scholarship.

The scholarship system has served Singapore well for several decades. But any system to build a talent pipeline must adapt.

sandra@sph.com.sg