Monday, July 14, 2008

Means Testing for scholarships?

When I first saw the above comic strip some time back, I was reminded of this suggestion which perhaps have been floating around in local discussion circles for quite some time but which never did gain much traction.

What was this suggestion that I was reminded of?

Well, to borrow a term which perhaps have become somewhat fashionable these days, it has been suggested that some form of “means testing” should be applied to the awarding of scholarships. By making such a suggestion, proponents of this suggestion are perhaps attempting to redress the supposedly unfair situation of scholarships being awarded to students from a well-to-do family background.

But before I move on into more details, I suppose some background information would be in order. As most of you all should already be aware, each year, various government agencies would award scholarships to students, thereby financing their studies in either local or overseas universities and granting them the prestige of being known as a “scholarship holder”. And, of course, in return, most of these scholarship holders would be bonded to the government agencies which awarded them their scholarships, in that they would have to work for a certain period of time with the agencies after their graduation.

The thing, however, which provoked the “means-testing” suggestion is that it appears that government agencies, while having stringent criteria to determine who are eligible enough to be awarded scholarships, do not factor in the family background of scholarship applicants when considering who to award government scholarships to. In other words, just as how the son/daughter of an ordinary taxi driver and/or typical hawker would be eligible to receive a government scholarship, so would the progeny of a lawyer, doctor and/or even the Prime Minister (note: if I am not wrong, all three of MM Lee’s children received government scholarships while at least two of PM Lee’s children have received government scholarships. As for SM Goh’s children, I am not too certain about whether they also received government scholarships).

Of course, it has been stated that the reason as to why the factor of family background is not taken into account is that “merit” should be the primary criterion and that students from a well-to-do family background should not be deprived of the opportunity of receiving a government scholarship because of their family background.

Nonetheless, there are those who find such a situation unfair, if not worrying. In my opinion, there are perhaps three reasons, which are intertwined with one another, as to why there are those who think that some form of “means testing” should be applied to the allocation of government scholarships.

One, as implied in the comic strip above, there are those who perhaps think it unfair that students from a well-to-do family background should receive government scholarships to finance their university studies when it is possible that their own families do the financing. These scholarships are, after all, funded by taxpayers’ money and undoubtedly, there would be those who would be of the opinion that taxpayers’ money should not go towards the financing of university studies for students from a well-to-do family background.

Two, there are perhaps those who are of the opinion that, since government scholarships are in short supply and rival in consumption (sidetrack: my economics teachers would be glad that I have not totally forgotten my JC economics, haa), when students from a well-to-do family background are awarded a government scholarship, they are indirectly depriving a student from a less well-to-do family background the chance to a government scholarship.

And, three, there are those who may be concerned that, considering the previous reason, an “entrenched elite” may be created while social mobility in Singapore is diminished (note: you all, if you all have the chance to, may want to read “Is social mobility becoming more elusive?” which is a commentary by Miss Chua Mui Hoong in the July 4th 2008 edition of the Straits Times).

Hence, with the three reasons mentioned above in mind, different variants of suggestions for some form of “means testing” to be applied to the awarding of government scholarships have been proposed.

Some have proposed that students from a well-to-do family background should not apply for government scholarships while some have proposed that priority for the awarding of government scholarships should be given to students from a less well-to-do family background.

And at the same time, others have proposed that government agencies offer a different category of scholarships for such students; scholarships which will offer no or less money and in turn, these students will have less of a bond period. The money saved could then perhaps be used to offer more scholarships, preferably for students from a less well-to-do family background.

The pertinent question, however, to ask is this: would “means testing” for scholarships work? Well, one approach which, in my opinion, we can use to try answering this question would be to look at why there is a demand and supply for government scholarships.

From my viewpoint, the demand for government scholarships is perhaps due to three simple, if not obvious, reasons. One, these scholarships provide financing for one’s (local or overseas) university studies. Two, there is perhaps some form of prestige associated with being a government scholarship holder; I mean, “President’s Scholar” does has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? And, three, though this may be disputable, the bond period attached to government scholarships essentially mean that one would have a ready employer once one graduates; this would perhaps have greater appeal for those who truly desire to work in the public sector.

Hence, considering the above, would demand for government scholarships still remain strong if “means testing” is implemented? Well, I am afraid to say that the answer, or at least my answer, would be that although some negative impact on demand would perhaps be inevitable, it is uncertain how much impact would be caused. This is bearing in mind that if “means testing” is implemented, it would most likely negatively affect the appeal of government scholarships arising from the first reason mentioned in the previous paragraph, i.e. the funding of one’s university studies, while perhaps not affecting the appeal caused by the other two reasons. It is uncertain whether, in such a situation, the second and third reasons would be enough to continue attracting demand for government scholarships. Of course, students from a well-to-do family background would perhaps not mind less funding for their university studies since their families could most likely provide the funding.

Moving on, let’s look at why government agencies offer scholarships. Well, in my opinion, the primary reason why government agencies offer scholarships would be to attract and recruit talent. They are not doing so as a form of social service, in that it is perhaps not the government agencies’ main objective that their scholarships aid students from a less well-to-do family background. Thus, with this in mind, it is questionable whether government agencies would be motivated to introduce some form of “means testing” for their scholarships, considering the possible negative impact this may have on the demand for scholarships, particularly that from competent students from a well-to-do family background.

Hence, in conclusion, I would have to say that while I am sympathetic to the idea of introducing some form of “means testing” for the awarding of government scholarships, it seems to me that it is quite unlikely that any such scheme would be introduced anytime soon. This is in view of the possible negative impact such a scheme may have on the demand for government scholarships, the possible motivation behind the offering of scholarships by government agencies and not forgetting the likely administrative difficulties in introducing and implementing such a scheme.


Ned Stark said...


Personally I believe that government bursaries should be given; and scholarships remain as they are. Scholarships are also a symbol of prestige among students; they denote that one has achieved the pinnacle of excellence. If there is a desire to help those not so well off then bursaries should be the way to go.

LCC said...

Ned Stark,

Hmm... I can understand your stance.

However, as I have mentioned, the reason why people are calling for "means testing" for government scholarships is not confined to only wanting to help students from a less well-to-do family background, it is also perhaps motivated by the perceived unfairness of students from a well-to-do family background receiving government funding for their university studies.

Ned Stark said...


I see your point. There may very well be a person who given a different environment would shine. Perhaps giving more bursaries will help? It seems to me that govt organisations do not give bursaries for higher education, though it could be ignorance on my part.

cheekenwing said...

There are different tiers of scholarships. For instance, there is a distinction between overseas scholars, local scholars, and local mid-term scholars in terms of the bonded period and scholarship quantum. Some would extend this and presume that there is also a difference in prestige, which is probably the case.

At any rate, bursaries would not mean much since they would surely be classified as the lowest tier. In addition, there's no point handing out bursaries and not attaching a bond period to them, so it's much easier to simply modify the terms and conditions of scholarships.

For example, scholars can offer to take up variable bond periods and have their scholarship value adjusted to reflect the difference. So instead of getting say, a 6-year bond for an all-expense paid overseas scholarship, perhaps they can offer a 3-year bond for a half-expense paid scholarship, and yet attach the same scholarship status (e.g. President's Scholar) to it.

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