Judging by the relative lack of intense debate in the media or among our student population, not many students were surprised at the NUS's decision to increase student tuition fees for the upcoming academic year.
Tuition fees have been increasing annually over the last few years with the exception of 2009, when an economic downturn prompted a deferment. While the proposed tuition fee hike may be an indication that economy has picked up, the hike has raised the issue of the affordability of tertiary education for both local and international students.
It is heartening to know that the NUS Student Union (NUSSU) has been actively engaging the student population about the tuition hike. In a recent email, the union assured the student body that "it is our prerogative... to question rigorously, provide constructive feedback and implement concrete measures to safeguard the interest and enhance the welfare of students"
To their credit, the NUSSU has also been in touch with Ministry of Education to increase transparency of campus accommodation fees. Since a portion of the funds coming from the tuition fee hike will be channeled into the subsidization of campus accommodation fees, increased transparency on how these funds are used will enable the school be more accountable to the student body. Accountability is especially important given that there seems to be a general upward trend in tuition fees.
NUSSU's initiatives will go a long way towards building the students’ confidence and trust in the union as an organization that is actively and passionately agitating for their interests and is not merely a “talking shop” or one that is more known for its examination welfare packages.
However, it remains to be seen if NUSSU’s engagement efforts will cause the school management to be more receptive and the student body more appreciative.
This is because the increase in tuition fees, which is applicable to all freshmen, is expected to hit non-Singaporean students hardest. Foreign nationals face the highest percentage of fee hike, followed by permanent residents.
Tuition fees have more than doubled for international students, compared to that of four years ago. The university has announced a slew of measures aimed at mitigating the effects of an increase in education costs on students, in the forms of higher bursaries and a more flexible and efficient distribution of these financial aids. However, these measures are primarily targeted at Singaporeans and little has been mentioned of the financial aid for their non-Singaporean counterparts.
While a Singaporean-first financial aid policy is line with the governmental policy, a relative lack of financial aid coupled with ever-increasing tuition fees may deter prospective foreign students from choosing NUS as their preferred choice of university.
Several foreign students approached by the Observer are ambivalent about the recent hikes in tuition fees.
While the cost of education may have increased here, the cost of living in Singapore is cheaper compared to that in popular destinations like Australia and the United Kingdom. Yet with the recent trend of tuition fee hikes, there is no doubt that the cost gap is slowly closing. Therefore it is plausible that in the future, some foreign students regard the gap as an insignificant price to pay for choosing a supposedly more liberal learning environment.
Given the inevitability of rising tuition fees, I think that the crux of this matter lies in the quality of education provided at the university. If students, local or otherwise, believe that education quality has improved accordingly or even above expectations, fee hikes will then be perceived as justifiable or even a worthwhile payoff.
The issue of tuition fee hike is one that is close to the hearts of the entire student population as it concerns the right of every person to quality education at a reasonable cost. While I applaud NUS's efforts in making sure that education is affordable, it's also important for the university to raise the quality of education in line with the rising tuition fees.