More students seeking bond-free scholarships to keep options open

Government scholarships have been in the spotlight after A*Star scientist Eng Kai Er started an arts grant, partly to protest against her six-year bond. -- PHOTO: MARTIN EKLUND
Government scholarships have been in the spotlight after A*Star scientist Eng Kai Er started an arts grant, partly to protest against her six-year bond. -- PHOTO: MARTIN EKLUND

With a string of As and an impressive record as a student leader, Hwa Chong Institution's Poh Yu Ting, 20, could have applied for any scholarship.

But she narrowed her choices down to bond-free ones and ended up choosing the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Global Merit award.

More bright students are forgoing government scholarships that come with a four- to six-year bond to take up bond-free ones from local universities, private organisations and foundations.

Government scholarships came under the spotlight recently after Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) scientist Eng Kai Er started an arts grant, partly to protest against her six-year bond tying her to a job she was not interested in.

She was roundly criticised for wasting taxpayers' money, but her case also sparked debate on whether people as young as 18 should be made to commit themselves to a bond.

The preference for no-bond scholarships could explain why applications for the prestigious Public Service Commission scholarships - which lead to top civil service jobs - have plateaued in the last four years at between 2,000 and 2,500 yearly.

This despite the bond period being reduced from six to four years for those doing their first degree here before heading overseas for a master's degree.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and NUS, on the other hand, saw demand spike.

For NUS, applications rose from about 2,300 four years ago to 3,300 this year. NTU saw 6,600 applications in 2010 jump to 9,900 this year.

OCBC Bank has seen the number of applications for its local university scholarships rise from 200 to 800 in four years. And Jardine Foundation, which gives bond-free scholarships for study at Oxford and Cambridge, is seeing higher demand.

With more top students applying, the two universities have increased their awards.

NUS, which gave out 340 scholarships in 2010, increased the number to 400 this year. At NTU, the number doubled from 133 in 2010 to 278 this year.

Scholarship holders said the scholarships being bond-free is a major draw, but there are other attractions such as special programmes and overseas stints.

NUS vice-provost for undergraduate education Bernard Tan said such scholarships allowed young people to keep their options open, while not losing out on overseas exposure.

Added Professor Kam Chan Hin, NTU's senior associate provost for undergraduate education: "Students can have their cake and eat it too."

NTU bioengineering student Jodie Tan, 19, turned down a government scholarship for an NTU one which will allow her to do two stints at top universities overseas.

"I don't feel like I lost out in any way," she said. "I get a solid engineering education at NTU plus global exposure. And at the end of the day I am not locked into a specific career path."

sandra@sph.com.sg