By Janice Heng
HIS predicament was one that most A-level graduates would envy.
A choice between an overseas Government scholarship, with the promise of a steady job upon his return, or a local scholarship with no bond - and no career - attached.
Mr Jovian Tan chose the latter. 'I was in quite a dilemma,' admitted the 20-year-old who scored three As at Raffles Junior College (RJC).
The Ministry of Education scholarship would have enabled him to study History at the London School of Economics. But he chose to read law at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on an OCBC Bank local scholarship.
'It's not that you cannot experience an overseas education once you decide to stay in Singapore,' Mr Tan pointed out. Travel opportunities in his course include exchange programmes with over 50 partner schools - from Columbia to Nottingham University - for up to a year.
Government or private sector overseas scholarships, the gateway to an expensive overseas education and top-dollar career, have long been the Holy Grail of top A-level students here.
But the accompanying bond, once prized for its job guarantee and fast-track prospects, is now widely seen as a 'not worth it' constraint. More top students like Mr Tan would rather remain bond-free and at home.
Traditional scholarships are facing a further challenge from a growing selection of attractive bond-free ones offered by local universities.
From last year to this year, NUS reported a rise in scholarship applications of over 50 per cent, and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) reported 20 per cent. Singapore Management University (SMU) also said numbers had spiked, but could not give comparative figures as it had changed its application process.
Supply of such scholarships has also risen with demand. SMU gave out 228 scholarships this year, up from 200 last year and 120 in 2006. NTU expects to give out 10 to 20 per cent more scholarships this year than last year.
Applicants interviewed said the increasing brand value of local universities, the availability of overseas stints, and flexible curriculum options have reduced the perceived difference between studying abroad and locally.
Under NTU's elite CN Yang Scholars Programme, scholars receive the university's Nanyang Scholarship - which covers tuition fees and pays over $6,500 a year in allowances - and undergo a tailored course, with a broad-based core curriculum and personal mentors.
'It's a good deal, especially for people who want not just a scholarship but also a good programme,' said three-A scorer Tan Zheng Wen, 22, now a scholar and aerospace engineering student at NTU.
Last year, Ms Jo Tay, a four-A student from RJC, withdrew from the final selection rounds of several overseas scholarships to apply for an SMU one instead.
'Halfway through my internship with one of the statutory boards, I decided that this was not the sort of work I wanted to do, and that I didn't want to be bonded for six years,' said the 20-year-old, now a double degree law and business management student in SMU's Lee Kong Chian Scholars Programme.
Awareness of local university scholarships, she noted, is rising, while bonded ones are now perceived as 'yesterday'. 'I think people are getting tired of them, and they're willing to take the chance of a bond-free scholarship instead.'
A growing aversion to being tied down to bonds means that university scholarships are increasingly seen as a first choice, rather than a back-up plan. More students are applying solely for university scholarships, like NUS scholar Png Chang Liang, 20. 'I did not want to be bonded after my studies, so I did not apply for any other scholarships,' said the top scorer from Hwa Chong Institution.
This antipathy to bonds is not new. Nor have scholarship providers ignored it. In 1997, the Public Service Commission (PSC) led the way in shortening bond periods: from eight years for overseas scholarships and five years for local ones, to six and four years respectively.
Some have gone further. In 2002, the Land Transport Authority shaved bonds to five and three years respectively. Since then, SIA has also cut bonds for overseas scholars to four years. Shorter yet are the bonds of new specialised scholarships.
The Creative Industries Scholarships (CIS) - formed in 2006 to group together National Arts Council, Media Development Authority of Singapore, and Design Singapore Council scholarships - cover tuition fees of up to $100,000, but only require recipients to work two years in media-related companies here.
The National Heritage Board scholarship, which began this year, only requires scholars to serve a three-year bond in return for a grant of up to $100,000 to study approved courses that include curatorial studies and art history.
But shorter and more flexible bonds may no longer be enough. Mr Pushp Deep Gupta from HR firm Hewitt Associates noted that today's no-strings-attached generation 'in fact cannot conceive of being bonded to a particular organisation for any particular length of time'.
Mr Ivan Chen, 21, who is reading medicine at Oxford on a bond-free Jardine Foundation scholarship, agreed: 'Ideally, nobody would want to be bonded unless they specifically want a career in what they're bonded to.'
Even if the job seems attractive at 18, exposure gained during university may change your mind, he reasoned.
So, increasingly sought after are overseas bond-free scholarships offered by non-profit organisations such as the Loke Cheng Kim Foundation and Jardine Foundation. Applications to the Jardine Foundation for one or two places a year - only to selected Oxbridge colleges - have jumped from nine in 2005 to about 20 a year here. Meanwhile, the Loke Cheng Kim Foundation draws over 500 applicants for the two scholarships or so it gives out each year.
Wising up to young people's need to keep all options open, one private firm has just entered the scholarship market - with an unconventionally short bond of two years. This year, tuition centre The Learning Lab awarded two local scholarships - which include tuition fees and an annual $10,000 allowance - after receiving almost 200 applications. It expects to give out four next year and six in 2010, and is considering scholarships to Sydney and Melbourne as well.
Scholarship holders will be its future programme directors and teachers.
Manager Charlene Ong said: 'A small organisation needs to be twice as nimble, twice more attractive in an employees' market. The key to retaining talent should be career paths and growth opportunities, not bond lengths.
'You can't handcuff anyone to blackboards.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 9, 2008.
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