The decision to pursue a university education is often one that students and parents make together. When it comes to student financing, many Singaporean students rely heavily on loans and the support of their families. It is worth noting that this culture of seeking higher education and getting into student debt is not common in most societies around the world.
A strong focus on grades makes the school an extremely competitive arena for students in Singapore. To be able to enter a good university, students must do well enough in exams such as the PSLE, O levels, and A levels. This pressure starts early as mothers enroll their four-year-old children into tuition centers so that they can get ahead with mathematical problems or English comprehension skills before they even reach primary school.
Additionally, a significant proportion of students remain in the local school system and pursue secondary education at either a junior college or a centralized institute. Here, they can gain their diploma before going on to national service as part of the requirements of compulsory military service for all males. In contrast, those who wish to study abroad will have fewer choices as most universities require applicants from outside Singapore to be proficient in English.
More recently, it has become more common for two years of university education in Singapore to be included as part of the four-year A-level program. These advanced placement courses help students with work experience while earning credits that can transfer into a degree program at NUS or NTU, both prestigious private universities that are among the best in the world. This practice could also help students by saving one year of tuition fees which can be substantial, but it makes for an extremely competitive admissions process as Universities treat AP students the same as those who have completed A levels.
For many years now, university education in Singapore has been free in Singapore except for small class fees. However, there are hidden costs that come with living independently at universities, such as food and accommodation expenses. Additionally, scholarships are only offered to a few exceptional students each year. As a result, most scholars must take out loans. For example, the Public Service Commission awards up to S$18 000 annually towards tuition fees to outstanding students who wish to pursue degrees in public service-related disciplines but do not qualify for financial assistance. These students may still have to take out loans to cover living expenses, books, and various equipment that are not covered by the scholarship.
As a result of all this, Singaporean students are more likely than one might expect them to be in debt at university age. The education system is extremely competitive, even before one sets foot in secondary school, so there is immense pressure for young people to get into good universities. It seems unlikely that the cost of university education will decrease anytime soon since it has been free for so long already without any signs of change. However, with the latest tuition fee hikes, only time will tell how much more expensive higher education may become.