Doing a degree programme for free... overseas

Left: Mr Tan's professor and fellow project team members (from left) Professor Robert Manzke, Ms Fyalisia Amanda Putri from Indonesia, Mr Tan, Mr Waqar Rashid from Pakistan, Mr Miguel Trasobares Baselga from Spain, Mr Chris Dubbert from Germany and M
Mr Tan's professor and fellow project team members (from left) Professor Robert Manzke, Ms Fyalisia Amanda Putri from Indonesia, Mr Tan, Mr Waqar Rashid from Pakistan, Mr Miguel Trasobares Baselga from Spain, Mr Chris Dubbert from Germany and Mr Prateek Jitendra Bhatt from India. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN SOO YAM
Left: Mr Tan's professor and fellow project team members (from left) Professor Robert Manzke, Ms Fyalisia Amanda Putri from Indonesia, Mr Tan, Mr Waqar Rashid from Pakistan, Mr Miguel Trasobares Baselga from Spain, Mr Chris Dubbert from Germany and M
Mr Tan Soo Yam will be graduating at the end of this year from the University of Applied Sciences Kiel, Germany.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

After working in IT consulting for more than eight years, Mr Tan Soo Yam wanted to take a break to upgrade his skills.

The 35-year-old enrolled in a two-year information engineering master's programme in Kiel, Germany in 2015. And he did it without forking out a single cent for tuition.

Like Mr Tan, hundreds of other Singaporeans have been heading to universities in countries like Germany and France. Both have made it a cornerstone of government policy to provide affordable access to higher education for all, including international students.

Tuition is either free or the fees are significantly marked down at public universities in at least four European countries - Austria, France, Germany and Norway. Students usually pay annual supplementary fees ranging from $400 to $1,000 to cover administrative costs and for social services.

"Europe may seem expensive compared to Singapore, but living costs are actually affordable and, since tuition fees are negligible, the opportunity cost of studying abroad is lower," said Mr Tan, who pays semester fees of about $350 a year, a sum which also covers public transport costs for students.

  • Fees and average living costs

  • AUSTRIA Fees: $1,100 to $2,000 a year.
    Living expenses: $1,400 a month.
    Language requirements: Most bachelor's courses taught in German, close to 100 master's degrees in English.

    FRANCE Fees: $280 to $900 a year, plus $320 a year for the student social security scheme.
    Cost of living: $1,200 to $1,500 a month.
    Language requirements: Minimum Advanced B1 level in French for most bachelor's courses taught in French. More than 1,200 bachelor's and master's programmes taught in English.

    GERMANY Fees: $400 a year on average. Tuition fees of about $4,500 a year to be introduced in federal state of Baden-Württemberg from October.
    Living expenses: $1,200 a month.
    Language requirements: Most bachelor level courses taught in German. Close to 1,000 master's degrees in English.

    NORWAY Fees: $160 to $400 a year.
    Living expenses: $1,700 a month.
    Language requirements: Most bachelor level courses taught in Norwegian. Over 100 master's degrees in English.

About 300 Singaporeans study in Germany every year but Mr Tan is the only one at the University of Applied Sciences Kiel. He chose the school as the course and its curriculum matched his interests.

Mr Tan, who will be graduating at the end of this year, is exploring job options in Germany, although he intends to return home eventually.

Norway is also attracting Singaporeans: In 2007, only 17 Singaporeans were enrolled as full-time students in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in its universities, most of which are public institutions. By 2014, the number was 150 students.

A spokesman from the Royal Norwegian Embassy told The Sunday Times that Norway has a long tradition of free education, and the 2005 Universities and Colleges Act turned the principle into law.

A French Embassy spokesman said about 500 students leave Singapore to study in France every year, and half of these are exchange students. Not all are Singaporeans.

The spokesman said the low tuition fees in the country's public universities - about $275 per year for most degrees, except for engineering, which is about $900 - are the result of the government's focus on education.

However, there are caveats.

Those looking to obtain a degree in these countries may have to master a foreign language, said students and education offices. While more postgraduate courses are taught in English, undergraduate programmes may be taught in the country's national language.

In Germany, out of 1,899 courses conducted in English - including postgraduate and short-term programmes - only 99 are undergraduate degree courses, such as the international business management programme at the Berlin School of Economics and Law.

Few programmes are taught in English at Austrian universities, said the Austrian Agency for International Cooperation in Education and Research.

"Not knowing German may be a hindrance when it comes to looking for internships and part-time jobs as you need to communicate with your colleagues," said Ms Ryanne Leong, a third-year mechanical engineering student at the Hamburg University of Technology.

The 22-year-old took a gap year after graduating from Hwa Chong Institution to study German before enrolling in university in 2014, where only the first year of her course was taught in English.

Citizens in such countries pay high taxes to subsidise the cost of education, with tax revenue coming up to 45 per cent of GDP in France and 38 per cent of GDP in Norway in 2015. Some citizens have voiced unhappiness about how foreigners are riding on such benefits.

This can prompt sudden policy shifts, said National Institute of Education policy expert Associate Professor Jason Tan.

Starting in October, the German federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg will introduce regular tuition fees for international students from outside the European Union that come up to about $4,500 a year. Sweden reintroduced tuition fees for international students outside the EU and European Economic Area in 2011.

Still, Prof Tan said, it is "encouraging" that young people are taking their own initiative to explore such opportunities abroad, instead of waiting passively for such options to be presented to them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 26, 2017, with the headline 'Doing a degree programme for free... overseas'. Print Edition | Subscribe