What makes Singapore the best study abroad destination for Asians?

Singapore by nightPhoto: Joshua Ang

Singapore’s unrivalled education system and professional opportunities are cementing its position as a focal point for higher education in Asia.

In 2012, during Startup Weekend Singapore, Lucas Ngoo and his two friends, Quek Siu Rui and Marcus Tan, presented an app to connect consumers in an online marketplace. This consumer-to-consumer marketplace would become Carousell, expanding into seven countries and achieving a valuation of more than US$550 million.

Ngoo was studying in Singapore at the National University of Singapore (NUS) but originally hailed from Malaysia. Like Jeffrey Tiong, the founder of Patsnap, he had been drawn to Singapore for the higher education opportunities on offer.

Singapore heralds a leading global education system

The Singaporean education sector has benefitted from high government spending, leading to increased demand from international students like Ngoo and Tiong over the last two decades.

With 21% of the city-state’s total fiscal budget earmarked for education and almost half of the nation’s education sector dominated by higher education institutes, Singapore has established itself among the top 15 student cities in the world.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranks Singapore’s education system as the best in the world. In the realm of higher education, Singapore posts two universities, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and NUS, in the top 12 of QS’s World University Rankings 2020.

In just five decades, Singapore transformed its workforce from a low-skilled, cheap labour force to a mine of highly skilled talent where almost half the workforce has a degree from an institute of higher education.

Much of this ascendancy can be attributed to the prominence of education in Singaporean culture. A stroll through Singapore’s suburbs yields advertisements for tutoring services, and enrichment classes designed to give students a leg up.

Parents are only too willing to pay. 70% of students receive supplementary education services. The average family in Singapore spends between S$150 (US$110) and S$250 (US$180) a month on tutoring.

The use of English is a major draw for international students

Over 75% of the population in Singapore speaks English. This is a major draw for Asian scholars as they don’t have to learn a completely new language from scratch. This aspect of easy communication is one of the contributing factors in making Singapore the Asian education hub.

Singaporean universities assess a candidate’s command of English by administering a language proficiency test. Applicants must demonstrate a solid grasp of the language before earning their place in a higher education institute.

The process of procuring a student visa for studying in Singapore is hassle-free. A Student’s approval letter from the university, also known as the In-Principle Approval (IPA) letter, allows students to secure a student pass.

Compared to other student hubs, Singapore is surprisingly affordable

Singapore is often seen as one of the most expensive student destinations in Asia. However, when compared to other student hubs in Australia, the US and the UK, it emerges as a competitive destination.

A HSBC survey estimated that the average annual cost for a foreign undergraduate in Singapore was US$39,229 per year. Students in Australia can expect to pay US$42,093 per year, while students in the US paid US$36,564.

There are ways to ease the financial burden

Students studying in Singapore can apply for TGS (Tuition Grant Scheme)—a government initiative to make education more affordable for international students. Through the TGS, the government subsidises student fees in exchange for the student’s agreement to stay and work in Singapore for three years following their graduation.

International students also have an option to apply for a Long-term Visit Pass. This allows students to stay in Singapore for a year after graduating, even if they have been unable to secure employment. If they secure a job within this period, they are issued a Work Pass.

Students also often seek part-time jobs to offset education expenses. Students enrolled in higher education institutions do not require an additional permit to work part-time.

Graph depicting the most popular part time jobs for students in Singapore.

Those that come, often stay

Between 2008 and 2018, 6,000 students applied for permanent residency in Singapore following their graduation. Of these, 82% were successful and have established careers in Singapore.

Part of the allure is the strength of the Singaporean job market. In 2018, just 2.2% of the population were unemployed. This figure, while low by international standards, was high by Singaporean standards. The government hopes to reduce the percentage of unemployed in the coming years.

With such low unemployment, graduates that enter Singapore’s workforce enjoy high levels of job security.

As the West becomes increasingly wary of international students and education hubs in the UK and the US face a backlash for the volume of foreign students they allow in their institutions, Singapore has the potential to establish itself as a ‘global schoolhouse’.