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Lifting the bottom: How about a S'pore DreamFund to help students from low-income families?

Meritocracy lies at the heart of the Singapore Dream - anyone who works hard will have equal opportunity to succeed regardless of background. Yet this cherished aspiration is increasingly under threat from "parentocracy", where affluent parents draw on superior financial resources to purchase child developmental advantages.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung with students of Damai Secondary School during a visit to the school on Wednesday (March 27). The authors suggest setting up a Dreamfund for students from low-income families to use for enrichment classes and tuition, among others.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung with students of Damai Secondary School during a visit to the school on Wednesday (March 27). The authors suggest setting up a Dreamfund for students from low-income families to use for enrichment classes and tuition, among others.

Meritocracy lies at the heart of the Singapore Dream — anyone who works hard will have equal opportunity to succeed regardless of background.

Yet this cherished aspiration is increasingly under threat from "parentocracy", where affluent parents draw on superior financial resources to purchase child developmental advantages.

To “lift the bottom”, as Education Minister Ong Ye Kung puts it, we propose setting up a DreamFund, a new credit scheme for low-income students in pre-tertiary schooling.

This can help preserve meritocracy through financial empowerment for low-income students to compete with affluent peers on a more equal footing.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

Socio-economic stratification is a core issue today.

Despite existing governmental intervention, Singapore’s gini-coefficient (after taxes and transfers) has persisted at around 0.402 for the past three years.

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In 2018, the lower 50 per cent of incomes grew at a slower rate than the upper half.

Almost 50 per cent of Singaporeans surveyed in 2018 considered the growing class divide the greatest social issue, suggesting weakening national faith in the meritocratic principles that underpins Singaporean society.

Educational inequality is rooted in socioeconomic inequality.

As the government extensively funds public education, one way the educational “arms race” manifests itself is through private tuition.

Singaporeans rank third in the world for annual spending on tuition — nearly double the global average.

In 2015, parents with a monthly income above US$4,500 spent double on tuition than parents earning below US$2,250.

Beyond academics, non-academic aptitudes like in music, sports, or even coding, are becoming increasingly relevant given the recent broadening of the Direct School Admission scheme to recognise “raw talent potential” outside formal grades or achievements.

Affluent parents thus maintain another avenue to purchase extracurricular developmental opportunities for their children to scale the education ladder.

Furthermore, income-related environmental factors such as longer travel time to school or other “negative factors” associated with the home have been shown to negatively affect learning and grades.

This is how socioeconomic inequality undermines child developmental equity outside of and long before formal education.

Weighed down by such disadvantages, only 10 per cent of low-income students emerge as the top 25 per cent of academic performers.

A 30-year New Zealand study found that, after controls, a top quintile family income engendered 1.5x higher degree attainment than the bottom quintile.

Academic qualifications in turn strongly determine future income: Singaporean degree holders earn 1.7 times more monthly income than diploma holders.

Education thus ceases to be a social leveller, instead enabling elites to monopolise educational resources and socioeconomic capital across generations.

Indeed, Minister Ong has acknowledged that meritocracy has spawned systemic unfairness: with children having different starting points, low-income families face greater difficulty breaking free of the low income trap.

Existing income supplementary schemes do not adequately provide for low-income students. The Workfare Income Supplement does not consider the number of dependents in a worker’s family.

Moreover, informally employed and unemployed individuals are not covered, penalising children for their parents’ circumstances.

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YOUR SAY: Tell us what you think

Educational funding schemes like Edusave only apply to in-school activities.

Such gaps in existing policies mean that more must be done to close the educational achievement gap in Singapore.  

HOW DREAMFUND WORKS

To tackle unequal private resources available to underprivileged school-goers, we propose DreamFund, a new credit scheme for low-income students in pre-tertiary schooling.

Implemented by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and applying to students in the bottom quartile of national income, monthly credits will be allocated to a new DreamFund child development account.

This can be used at approved enrichment centres and bookstores for private academic tuition, extra-curricular enrichment programmes and learning support resources.

This amount will be costed based on a basket of enrichment programmes and products commonly purchased by Singaporean students.

As DreamFund is not tied to parental employment, it will cover children of unemployed and informally employed workers.

DreamFund will equalise out-of-school growth opportunities and resources for children from the bottom 25 per cent income bracket through boosting family income.

This ties in with an ongoing Ministry of Education task force led by Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah which seeks to strengthen such support, “possibly extending to those in the bottom 40 per cent”.

A 2016 United States study indicated that such direct income support yields positive impacts on academic performance and eventual adult employment rates for low-income children.

Beyond the financial boost itself, a 2018 Chinese study highlighted that “Child Development Accounts” like DreamFund simultaneously shift parental and children attitudes.

Significantly, such schemes cultivated conscious parental asset-building for children's long-term development, with positive spillover effects to student motivation.

These are two key focus areas of the MOE task-force.

Furthermore, extra-curricular opportunities enabled by DreamFund encourages the development of non-academic skill-sets and soft skills.

Such skills will be essential within an Industry 4.0 economy, where technological disruption increases demand for an intellectually-versatile workforce.

DreamFund is thus a social investment in Singapore’s human capital, boosting economic growth whilst reducing inequality.

This policy is both feasible and affordable. Online-based credit schemes (e.g. SkillsFuture) exist today.

Regarding cost concerns, the targeted nature of DreamFund makes it a financially sustainable endeavour relative to existing social policies.

Assuming a S$100 monthly payout to children aged seven to 18 from the bottom income quartile, DreamFund will cost S$150 million annually — a fraction of WorkFare, which offers low-income workers S$125-300 monthly and cost S$667 million in 2016.

Credit schemes also prevent welfare fraud by releasing funds only to reimburse legitimate expenditure.

DreamFund is thus a value-for-money social investment that will improve equality of opportunity and human resource development.

Going beyond, while DreamFund can alleviate educational inequality in the short to medium term, deeper reforms are required to tackle the root cause of this problem — wider socio-economic inequality.

While new redistributive policies to narrow the income gap may require increases in government spending, it is money worth spending to preserve the meritocratic nature of our society.

To give Singaporeans a sense of national identity and a stake in Singapore’s progress, we must keep the Singapore Dream alive.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Ng Qi Siang, Ng Yi Ming and Heather Cheng Hoi Yeuk are students of Yale-NUS College. This is the winning entry of an essay competition for National University of Singapore students and alumni that is held in conjunction with NUS’ U@live forum on the topic “Education – Still a Social Leveller?” Education Minister Ong Ye Kung was a key panelist at the forum on Wednesday (March 27).

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