Which university?

For three years now, students have been able to apply to all three local universities, and choose where to go once the acceptances come in. So, the universities are striving to be different - in their programmes, admission criteria and fees.
Which university?
Published 09 Jun 2017


For three years now, students have been able to apply to all three local universities, and choose where to go once the acceptances come in. So, the universities are striving to be different – in their programmes, admission criteria and fees. Education Correspondent Sandra Davie shows students around the maze of choices offered by the universities.



THE array of courses here has just got wider - and the double-degree route is fast becoming the popular choice. These have proved popular in overseas universities as well, because employment surveys have shown that double-degree graduates are in great demand by companies which want well-rounded employees.



It offers the widest range of degrees among the three universities. Its exclusive courses are law, medicine, architecture, dentistry, music, pharmacy and two new ones - nursing, and project and facilities management.

DOUBLE DEGREES: Economics and law; business and law; business and engineering; and economics and engineering.

It has expanded its range of courses in recent years to include social sciences and fine arts. Its exclusive offerings include art, design & media, aerospace engineering, communication studies, maritime studies and education (conducted by the National Institute of Education).

DOUBLE DEGREES: Business and computer engineering; biomedical sciences and traditional Chinese medicine

Positioned as a boutique business university, it offers four-year, full-time programmes in accountancy, business, economics, information systems management and social science.

DOUBLE DEGREES: A combination of two from accountancy, business, economics, information systems management or social science.



IN THE latest round of fee increases announced last month, SMU's went up by 15 per cent and NUS' and NTU's by 3 per cent.

But if you decide to go to SMU, your fees will not be raised for the duration of your course, even if there is another increase for later intakes. Some parents and students prefer this unique lock-in scheme, saying that it allows them to plan ahead and set aside a specific amount of money.

Both NUS and NTU have said they are considering a similar scheme.

Still, SMU explained that its fee increase is high because, with only 3,800 undergraduates, it does not enjoy the same economies of scale as NUS and NTU, which have undergraduate populations of 18,000 or more.

However, the business university's dons argue that, precisely because of its smaller intake, close attention is paid to developing the potential of every student.


NUS annual fees NTU annual fees SMU annual fees

$7,570 - music

$17,520 - dentistry and medicine

$6,110 - All other courses





A UNIVERSITY may have the latest equipment and top-class buildings - but the quality of its faculty and student body is what sets it apart from the competition.

Before deciding on which school to choose, you should study the student mix - asking questions such as how many postgraduates there are compared to undergraduates and what is the percentage of foreign students.

Generally, the more diverse the student body, the richer your learning experience. Polytechnic graduates would want to look at how many places were offered last year to diploma holders. As for the faculty, many university rankings use the percentage of foreigners on the teaching staff as an indicator of quality.

The reasoning is that the more academics a university can draw from abroad, the better its international reputation must be. The same logic goes for star professors: If a university manages to draw someone who is at the top in his field, then it must be renowned for that field of study.


NUS student mix NTU student mix SMU student mix

- 23,000 undergraduates (25 per cent foreigners)

- 9,000 postgraduates (50 per cent foreigners)

- 6,000 yearly intake

- 750 poly grad intake in 2005

- 18,000 undergraduates (20 per cent foreigners)

- 8,000 postgraduates (50 per cent foreigners)

- 4,000 yearly intake

- 1,100 poly grad intake in 2005

- 3,800 undergraduates (16 per cent foreigners)

- 130 postgraduate students (17 per cent foreigners)

- 1,200 yearly intake

- 226 poly grad intake in 2005


NUS faculty
2,000-strong faculty (50 per cent foreigners)



  • David Michael Kemeny, world leader in immune regulation, headed the immunology department at King's College Hospital in London before coming to NUS.

  • Barry Halliwell, whom publishers of the Science Citation Index have identified as one of the most influential scientists worldwide in biology and biochemistry. He is also an expert panel member of the World Health Organisation.

  • Louis Chen, the first person in East Asia to be elected president of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics and the first Asian to be elected president of the Bernoulli Society for Mathematical Statistics and Probability.

  • Demographer Gavin Jones, well-known for his research on economic crises in South-east Asia, marriage and divorce in Malaysia, and population and development in east Indonesia. He chairs the Council of Committee for International Cooperation in National Research in Demography, a Paris-based organisation.

  • Bryan Stanley Turner, formerly professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge. He currently heads a research cluster on globalisation and religion in NUS and is writing a three-volume study of the sociology of religion and is also editing a Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology.

  • Hew Choy Leong, an internationally renowned researcher in structural biology, protein structure and function as well as marine biotechnology.

  • Christopher Earley, an expert in cross-cultural management who previously held the department chair of the Organisational Behaviour group at the London Business School.


NTU faculty
1,300-strong faculty (50 per cent foreigners)



  • Tn Hun Tong, highly cited author in accounting.

  • Gillian Yeo, expert in capital markets, accounting and corporate finance.

  • Pan Tso-Chien, world-renowned in earthquake and environmental engineering.

  • Loh Teck Peng, one of the most cited authorities on chemistry and biological chemistry.

  • Rohan Kumar Gunaratna, terrorism expert.

  • Adrian Cheok, expert in digital media, mixed reality.

  • James Tam, known worldwide for his work in peptide and protein chemistry research.

  • Tan Kong Yam, leading economist.

  • Chew Cheng Hai, Chinese language and culture expert, currently spearheading a project on a global Chinese dictionary.

SMU faculty
180 professors (65 per cent foreigners)


  • George Wei Sze Shun, teaches law and is a leading authority in intellectual property.

  • Francis Koh Cher Chiew, heads a wealth management programme.

  • Augustine Tan, expert in international trade and finance.

  • David Chan, teaches psychology.

  • Tan Teck Meng, teaches accounting.

  • Arcot Desai Narasimhalu, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation with the school of information systems.


THERE are two main types of financial aid - tuition fee loans, which are available to all students; and bursaries, which are meant for needy students. Then there are loans and grants for additional expenses, such as for buying a computer or going on overseas stints.

Many students prefer to use their parents' CPF money, rather than take a tuition fee loan from the banks. But university dons point out that bank loans are interest-free until a student graduates, whereas the 2.5 per cent yearly interest for CPF loans kicks in when a student starts school.

In recent years, following the practice of US schools, the universities here have also started offering students part-time jobs on campus.

CPF: Parents may use up to 40 per cent of their CPF Ordinary Account savings to pay for their children's tuition fees in local tertiary institutions. The repayment, made directly to the CPF account, begins a year after the student graduates. It includes interest at 2.5 per cent a year, and can be made in one lump sum or in monthly instalments over a maximum of 12 years.

SCHOLARSHIPS: All three universities offer a range of scholarships which are given out based on merit. Some scholarships are also needs-based.


Their highest scholarships - the NUS Global Merit Scholarships, SMU's Lee Kong Chian Scholarships and NTU's Nanyang Scholarships - are bond-free. They cover not only tuition fees and living expenses, but also for one to two years' study abroad.

LOANS: One in three NUS, NTU and SMU undergraduates currently takes a bank loan to cover tuition fees, up to a limit of 80 per cent. In August, that limit will go up to 90 per cent. The loan is interest-free until graduation, after which the current prime rate at local banks applies.

BURSARIES: These are given out by the universities and the Education Ministry to needy undergraduates. This is intended to help them pay for books, meals and transport. But students must meet the threshold income level, which means their family's monthly per capita household income must be $900 or less.


The university bursary awards range from $1,000 to $1,500 a year, while MOE's bursary is $800 a year. Both NUS and NTU have announced that they will increase funding for the financial help schemes.



It will be setting aside $3 million, on top of the current $1.4 million, so that more students can get help. Last year, only about 500 of the 1,300 undergraduates who applied received bursaries

The university, which is boosting its $500,000 bursary budget by $2 million, estimates that about 20 per cent of its undergraduates, or 3,000 students, require financial help. Last year, it approved about 50 per cent of the applications.

It has set aside $800,000 for student bursaries but the university says there are few takers as most prefer to take up jobs on campus to help meet their expenses.



NUS and NTU admit the majority of their students based on examination results, but since 2004 up to 10 per cent have also been able to get in on other criteria.



It believes that the main reason for the quota is to encourage youth to pursue interests beyond the classroom. So it uses the scheme only for students with borderline results. A panel vets the applications of those who missed the academic mark, to see if they have other qualities or talents or faced extenuating circumstances, such as a serious illness. In 2005, 702 students were interviewed and 440 made the final cut.

It uses the 10% quota to talent-spot students with exceptional qualities, with grades coming a distant second. Last year, 568 applicants with outstanding achievements outside the classroom were shortlisted. They were then interviewed by a panel, chaired by an NTU alumni member, which quizzed them intensively on their interests and achievements. (The panel's endorsement is mandatory before an application can be sent to the school of the student's choice.) It is only after all this that NTU dons looked at their grades to see whether the students can handle the course. As a result, many of the 127 admitted under the discretionary admission scheme had exceptional qualities and talents as well as good academic scores

It uses a broad range of criteria - including A-level or polytechnic results, SAT scores, a panel interview, a reflective essay and applicants' achievements outside class.



DECIPHERING the value of rankings can sometimes be tough because there is no one simple way to measure the worth of a university. The outcome of any ranking process depends largely on what factors are being used by those compiling the rankings - and what weight they assign to each.

Having said that, a detailed ranking table does, however, allow students to mine relevant information - such as the mix of local-international faculty, professor-student ratios and employer ratings of a particular university's graduates. There are a few international ranking exercises, including the listing of the world's 200 best universities by The Times of London Higher Education Supplement.

Here again it is important to not just look at the overall ranking, but also how the universities fare in the different disciplines.



Last year, it fell four places to No. 22 in The Times ranking table. It was named the ninth-best university in the technology disciplines, which include engineering and computer science; 13th in social sciences; 15th in biomedical sciences; and 34th in general sciences.

Moved up two places to No. 48 in last year's Times ranking; and was 26th in technology disciplines.

The university, which specialises in business, was not included in The Times ranking, as single-subject institutions are left out.



ALL three local universities released the results of their graduate employment surveys recently. But what do all those numbers and percentages mean, and how does a student-to-be sift through the data to find what is relevant for him?

For a start, students must look beyond the figures showing overall job placement rates and impressive salaries and focus on what the results are for the courses they are interested in.

It is also worthwhile to look at the job prospects of specific groups of students - like those in special programmes such as the NUS overseas college scheme.



Its survey showed that the number of graduates who found jobs rose by two percentage points to 94 per cent overall last year. The average starting salary for all graduates was $2,500, an increase of 5.2 per cent from 2004.

Graduates of 10 of 29 courses - including law, dentistry and architecture - reported full employment rates, while respondents from 16 other courses, including electrical engineering and social sciences, achieved employment rates ranging from 91 per cent to 98 per cent.

The private sector continued to be the biggest employer of NUS graduates, although there was a drop from 68 per cent in 2004 to 64 per cent last year.

Graduates who had been on the overseas programme reported higher average starting salaries of $2,900 and employment rates of 97 per cent.

Its class of 2005 achieved a 95 per cent employment rate - the highest in five years - as well as an NTU record average starting monthly pay of $2,600.

For the class of 2004, the employment rate was 90 per cent, while the average starting salary was $2,500.

The new survey also showed that half the students received job offers even before their final examinations, with three in five attracting more than one offer.

Its second batch of graduates kept up the school's 100 per cent employment rate and - riding on the booming economy - business graduates raised the average starting salary by $120, or about 5 per cent.

Eleven of its 288 business and accountancy graduates who responded to the survey were top earners, pulling in between $5,000 and $10,000 a month. Three quarters of its graduates found jobs within a month of graduation, and the same proportion had more than one job offer.



Because the three universities offer different courses, one common denominator for comparison could be their business degrees.

The average starting pay for SMU's business students is $2,600, although the amount for those who graduate with very good results is about $3,000. NUS' business graduates with honours start out with an average of $2,900, while those without honours get $2,550. NTU did not give the overall average salary figures for its business graduates, but said the top 20 per cent earn, on average, a starting pay of $3,050 a month.


LIVING on campus does not come cheap - adding up to more than $2,000 a year here - but university dons say it helps build leadership qualities.

Most student halls are run by committees and sub-committees which organise a variety of activities, allowing students to take up leadership roles. Campus life also provides a diverse community where students can learn from each other as much as from faculty. And studying and living with a diverse community of peers and professors make students recognise and value cultural differences.



Only about 6,000 students now live in its six residence halls and other student accommodation on Kent Ridge campus. But by 2009, it plans to have a university town at the former Warren Golf Club site in Clementi.

Ten halls will be built on the 19-ha location, housing another 6,000 students and faculty. It is modelled loosely on the residential college systems in some American and British universities.

Depending on the room type, rates range from $720 to $1,080 a semester, which is 18 weeks.

The largest residential university with 16 halls of residence, boasting over 5,000 rooms, it is the only one among the three universities to guarantee all first-year students a room on campus.

Currently it has more than 9,000 students living on campus and is looking to expand to 40 halls of residence by 2012, subject to demand.

Rates range from $620 to $1,000 per semester.

Its foreign students live mostly in privately run student hostels, but three blocks of HDB flats near its city campus are converted into hostels in end 2006.

The blocks, located between Short Street and Prinsep Street, will be able to accommodate up to 268 students in total.

Rental rates have not been fixed yet, but they will be comparable to prices in the area, which is about $1,000 a month for a three-room HDB apartment.



GLOBALISATION is the buzzword these days - and it is crucial that students be exposed to other cultures and systems.

The universities here have caught on to this and are giving more students the chance to go abroad. The exchange programmes range from short, two-week business trips to a whole year or even two in partner universities.



Currently about 20 per cent of its students get to go overseas, but the university hopes to increase that figure to 50 per cent in two years' time.

NUS' premium international programme is its overseas college scheme. Its five colleges abroad - in the Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Philadelphia, Stockholm and Bangalore - focus on different areas, such as telecommunications, manufacturing and biotechnology.

Students work full-time for a year as interns in companies there and take part-time courses in NUS partner institutions.

It, too, sends 20 per cent of its students abroad currently but is aiming to boost that to 50 per cent within the next two years. Its sought-after Global Immersion Programme gives students the chance to study and work for up to a year in places such as China, India, France, Switzerland and the United States.

The advantage of having a relatively small undergraduate population comes into play here: Every student who applies for an overseas exchange programme is given approval.

But currently, only about 40 per cent of its students go overseas as part of their education.

The university hopes that, in five years, all its students will be going abroad. They could seek to do internships in companies overseas, do community service abroad or go on business study missions to explore opportunities and learn about cultural sensitivities, from Silicon Valley to Spain.

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