ST Education Forum: More online curriculum does not mean education costs are lower, says Lawrence Wong

Mr Wong said that keeping university fees affordable has and will continue to be a key priority for his ministry. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - The Government watches the cost of higher education "like a hawk", and the fact that more parts of the curriculum are going online does not necessarily mean costs are lower, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong on Friday (Feb 5).

Manpower costs for faculty and staff is a key cost component for all universities, even overseas institutions, and these staff are needed to keep things going and to provide a good learning experience for students, he added.

Speaking at The Straits Times Education Forum 2021 on Reimagining Universities, Post-Covid, Mr Wong said that keeping university fees affordable has and will continue to be a key priority for his ministry.

"There is a view that, 'So much of this is going online, surely it can be cheaper,'" he said.

"Yes, if everything is 100 per cent online, sure, but that's not the university education. You're not going to get the university education by going online and signing up to MOOCs (massive open online course) and doing it for four years.

"It will be blended, which means that faculty will still be required."

But he stressed that the Ministry of Education (MOE) will continue to ensure generous subsidies for university education in Singapore.

This has been done to prevent mounting student debt problems that are prevalent in other countries.

Beyond the subsidies, there is also a range of bursaries that MOE recently enhanced, he said.

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"We have done it for not just for the lower income (group), but bursaries go up to the middle income (group). And I think that's the right approach, because it ensures a progressive system."

For example, those with a gross household income of $6,901- $9,000 or per capita income of $1,726-$2,250 are eligible for bursaries.

This applies to full- and part-time Institute of Technical Education Nitec and Higher Nitec students, polytechnic students and university undergraduates.

Bursary quantums have also been increased.

However, one point raised at the forum by speakers was that even with fees made more affordable, some parents may still want their children to enter the workforce early to generate income and forgo their studies.

Addressing this, Mr Wong said: "It may be so. But I think that we will then have to look at this in different ways.

"We can, for example help the families through other means, not necessarily through MOE and the universities, but rather social assistance to help the family."

The student could also consider doing work-study programmes, he said, adding that even if the student does wish to go out into the working world, he or she can continue education at a later time, he added.

A polytechnic graduate, for instance, could decide to look for a job first. "But it doesn't mean that you're foregoing your chance to get a degree," said Mr Wong. "You can do so later in life as well."

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