24 October 2005

Exchange Programmes

ST Forum, Oct 24, 2005
Can ex-exchange student evade his conscience?

I AM writing in response to the report, 'Exchange student's switch to US varsity surprises NTU' (ST, Oct 20), on engineering student Cheng Yi Wei's switch to Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta while on an exchange programme from the Nanyang Technological University.

It is unfortunate that Mr Cheng, 24, failed to consider the implications
of his actions:

By accepting to study in NTU initially, he deprived another student a precious chance to study there;

By taking advantage of the exchange programme to switch to another university, he deprived another NTU student of the rare opportunity to take part in the programme; and

By doing so, he abused the trust that NTU had placed in its undergraduates.

It was shocking to read that Mr Cheng said he could do it since he was not 'legally bound'.

This event has had severe consequences - now NTU will have to legally bind its students on aspects that would not have been an issue when there was trust. Has our society degenerated to such a level that a six-month programme needs legal contracts?

While Mr Cheng managed to evade the legal repercussion of his actions, he cannot avoid his conscience.

What we do in life echoes in eternity - this a line from the movie Gladiator. Singapore society cannot thrive in a web of legal boundaries, but on the ethics of the people.

Kelvin Law Wei Ming
Sorry, I just fail to see the significance of this event.

Say I join NTU. I study there. Then I decide to leave NTU. I could leave for any number of reasons. For example, I may have personal family problems. Or financial problems. Or I realise that I really have no interest in my chosen course.

What's so wrong about that?

Then suppose I leave NTU because I decide that I prefer to pursue my education somewhere else, which I feel is better suited for me.

What's so wrong about that?

This Cheng Yi Wei chap was on an exchange programme. So? An exchange programme is just another university activity. It's another part of the overall curriculum. In fact, I understand that in NUS and NTU, it has become a rather ordinary part of the overall curriculum - there are MANY exchange programmes being run with MANY other universities for students in MANY different faculties and disciplines.

So what is the big deal here? Just because a student was on an exchange programme, therefore he cannot decide to switch universities?

Mr Wang offers you two different ways of looking at this matter. The first way is to view Cheng Yi Wei as a customer. He is a customer because he pays school fees to NTU to study there. The second way is to view Cheng Yi Wei as talent. He is talent in the same way that all bright, educated Singaporeans are talents.

If you choose to see Cheng as a customer, then the moral of the story is that customers are not necessarily loyal. Customers pay for what they want, and if they can get better value elsewhere, then they go. So if you're running a business, your job is to make sure that you deliver well enough to keep your customers. If you don't, well, too bad.

If you choose to see Cheng as talent, then the moral of the story is the same story that has been actively playing out in Singapore for the past seven, eight years. Talent is mobile. It has the capability to uproot itself and move elsewhere. So if you'd like to keep your talent, you have to create an environment where talent wants to stay.

That's it. Simple as that.


Huichieh said...

Talking about "customers", I was under the impression that money was involved, that NTU paid for the GIT Tuition, and hence the concern. What NTU wants to do now is to make exchange students "sign a contract requiring them to return the amount subsidised should they withdraw from NTU"--which seems like good commercial sense to me. No more, no less than the 'damages' in scholarship contracts.

Mr. Law, however, was talking more in moral terms...which is another kettle of fish altogether.

geekgeek said...

I fail to see any moral obligation on Cheng Yi Wei's part either. I highly doubt anyone is required to think of so many possibilities when making choices with regards to the vicissitudes of life.

When I buy a movie ticket, and later abandon it and buy another ticket for a different show, am I to feel sorry for depriving another person of a chance to watch that movie?

Unless it involved a life-and-death situation of sorts, I do not see Cheng Yi Wei as owing any moral duty to some fictitious person who may have lost a chance to study at NTU because Mr Cheng decided to bail.

takchek said...

My take:


chrischoo said...

I understand (but could be mistaken) that Mr Cheng was on exchange using a subsidy from NTU. I'm not exactly sure what form of subsidy this was, but my impression was that it was some kind of grant given to him. In my mind, this means that he had a moral obligation to NTU since he was going there on their money. Nonetheless, I agree with Mr Wang that talent is mobile, and that if you spot a good opportunity it is not surprising to jump ship. Unfortunately, what I heard is that Mr Cheng refused to return the grant that has given to him for the trip. I think that if he received any subsidy, the least he could do was to return it to NTU since it was on NTU's money that such an opportunity was made available to him.

Essentially, I don't think he is wrong to have transferred. I just think it is wrong for him to rely on subsidies from NTU and then transfer without paying back what the school spent on him for the exchange.

Elia Diodati said...

Hear, hear!

mugster said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mugster said...

Come on, the guy's actions lack basic honor. To qualify for the GIP program, interviewees have to go for rounds of selections, and some do not get through. The fact that Mr Cheng got a place means that someone else was excluded. The aim of this program is to promote exchange, so that students can bring back their experiences and contribute to sg.

If he intended to leave NTU, then he should have applied through normal means, and not made use of this loophole to first get a foot into Georgia Tech through GIP.

It's not so much about the money, rather, like any school sending its students on exchange, NTU has placed trust in Mr Cheng to conduct himself well because he represents Singapore in the US. Mr Cheng obviously lacks the basic integrity to first finish his GIP stint, terminate his studies at NTU, then apply to Georgia independently.

Basically the GIP has certain objectives, which would not be met if students on GIP start leaving NTU while actually on GIP.

I'm from NTU so I know that many would have applied for this program, and many would have been disappointed due to limited places.

It's very telling that Singaporeans have once again breached the trust placed in them, and then blame the authorities for having to come up with contracts (for goodness' sakes!) to ensure that students do not breach trust.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

To be honest, I didn't read the original article, so I may not know the full relevant background. Do fill me in on the facts, if I have missed something. As I see it, this is what probably happened.

This NTU student applies for an exchange programme;

he goes to the foreign university;

he gets a chance to see the environment;

he finds that he really likes the place;

he feels that he can get a better education here than at NTU;

so he makes the necessary inquiries, talks to his parents etc;

and he decides to study at GIT.

He doesn't pay NTU back for the money because he doesn't need to. (Typically I also never pay out money that I don't need to, except to my wife, kids, parents and to charity).

There, plain and simple.

I don't really buy the "he-deprived-someone-else-of-a-place" argument. I think it's not very realistic. If you take it to its logical conclusion, no one should ever change course; switch jobs; quit his place in a sports team; or even have a divorce.

And what's this about representing Singapore?? I really don't see it that way. Perhaps if you were an SAF man going on an exchange programme to the US army - ok, fine. But I don't think NTU students should, or should feel morally obliged, to represent Singapore. Officially I think they represent NTU and that's about it/

mugster said...

I think he went not for a student exchange program, but for the Global Immersion Program which is specially designed to allow students to experience 6 mths of studying in one country, and 6 mths of working in another. I could be wrong, it could be under INSTEP (the student exchange program, which is separate from GIP)

Let's leave the issue of whether exchange students are supposed to represent their countries aside.

The GIP is a program with specific objectives. Objectives, I am sure, that would not be met if students decide to quit the program halfway, or leave the school so that benefits do not accrue to the school.

In return for all the work the school puts in into arranging for his study and lodging in the US, all he has to do is to come back and share his experiences with fellow NTU students.

NTU is not a visa processing agency which students can expect to help them arrange for places in overseas unis; it is a university with limited resources, and allocates resources to specific projects which have to benefit NTU.

The effect of Mr Cheng's actions is to force the uni to implement measures to ensure that now students have to legally contracted to come back.

Lest you think NTU is being petty for reproaching Mr Cheng, well, I cannot imagine that any other universities would gladly process all students' applications, make tie-ups with the foreign universities and help students with all the local paperwork, and accept that none of the students would even come back and give back to the school in the simple form of speaking at the next GIP talk.

Kudos to Mr Cheng, he has abused what was meant to give NTU students an added opportunity to see the world, and left the school with no choice but to not depend on trust.

mugster said...

I would also be interested as to what you consider to be a legitimate example of depriving another person of a place.

(IMHO, I think it's pretty clear cut; exchange programs have limited places, and they are advantageous in the sense that you get to spend a term in a good overseas uni because of your own uni's ties with the other uni. For INSTEP, you pay NTU fees while studying in a more expensive country because the other uni sends another student over. )

beAr said...

hmmm... instead of laying the blame squarely on the student, has the institution done any soul-searching on its part? if the school is top-notch (and i don't just mean in terms of academia), will it need to fear her students jumping ship one by one?

another thing - this talk of wanting to make students sign a "contract" is so silly; it's akin to a professor insisting that the students come for lectures because attendance will be taken. shouldn't students go to lectures to learn, and not to have their attendance taken?

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

What would I consider as a legitimate example of depriving another person of a place? Well, the immediate example that springs to my mind is where I have cheated in order to get my place. For example, I fake my academic grades or CCA records so that I look more impressive than I really am; and I succeed in getting my place. Or I take steroids to achieve better performance and make it into the national team, depriving someone else of a place.


You say that GIP objectives, whatever they are, would not be met if students just pulled out. I don't doubt that this is true. On the other hand, the failure of GIP to achieve its objectives doesn't necessarily mean that there is some kind of moral failure on the part of the student.

To give you some examples, banks normally give free gifts/vouchers to new credit card customers. Some customers, after taking their free gift, hardly ever use their credit card and may even terminate them after some time. The objective of the free gift scheme is not met, but I wouldn't say that these customers are immoral.

Example 2: the government heavily subsidises SDU activities. SDU members pay a token fee and take part in activities such as scuba diving, playing golf, yoga class etc. After the activity, the members say to everyone, "Hey that was fun. Well, goodbye, everyone." They don't proceed to get married or anything like that. Well, I don't think that has any moral implications either.


Mugster, you make a big deal of the fact that this student didn't fulfill his part of the obligation to come back to NTU and give a talk to other NTU students and tell them about his experience.

Well, let me suggest something to you. Suppose this Cheng Yi Wei person now says: "Well, I'm studying at Georgia now, but I'm coming back to Singapore in Dec to spend Christmas with my family. Although I'm no longer an NTU student, I would be quite happy to stop by at the campus and give a talk to students about my GIP experience. Hey, I'll give two talks if there are many people who want to hear what I have to say."

There. One big moral obligation satisfied, isn't it? But let me say something. I still don't think you'd feel particularly satisfied. Would you? You would still feel cheesed off, I suspect. And if I am right, well, I invite you to think about WHY you really feel cheesed off.


I think that signing a contract is a good idea. It covers the commercial angle. Eg you quit GIP halfway, you compensate NTU for the subsidy. But I don't think that there are any moral connotations.

It's a bit like scholarships, isn't it. YOu sign a contract too. Organisation funds your tuition fees, in return you work for organisation for X years. If you break bond, you pay compensation. That's what the contract says.
Again I don't think that there are necessarily any moral connotations.

The difference between GIP and the scholarship example is that GIP had no contract. With hindsight, that was not very clever, from the commercial perspective. But moral issues - well, that's another kettle of fish. Or non-fish.


chrischoo said...

Actually on a very basic level I think that the need for a contract means that the parties entering it do not have sufficient trust in each other to begin with. Some might think that blind trust is bad, and that contracts are the only way to have some kind of mutual understanding, but deep inside I think that it would be much better if contracts were not needed at all.

I don't agree that Mr Cheng was representing Singapore, but he was certainly representing NTU, and him being one of the privileged few I can't say that I feel very comfortable about what he did because it appears to me as a self-centred action that lacked consideration for his home university.

A lot of of resources are poured into developing these programmes, especially since Singapore universities are not considered *hot* to Americans. This is why it is sad that Mr Cheng jumped ship despite being sent overseas on NTU subsidy.

The same thing applies to those on bonds. Is it ethical for people to break their bonds because better opportunities present themselves along the way? Note that these opportunities would not have been available had the bond, or in this case Mr Cheng's exchange programme, not been made available to him in the first place. It is the idea of biting the hand that feeds you that many people are unhappy with.

Essentially in the short run, Mr Cheng may have got the better end of the bargain - he is now in a more prestigious university. But if you were an employer, and you knew what Mr Cheng has done, I am sure you would have reservations hiring him if you need a post to be filled on a long-term basis.

I think a better way he could have gone about it would be to do his postgraduate studies there instead of transferring half-way. To me, he should have fulfilled this obligation of returning to his home university since they most certainly wanted him to return.

The aim of an exchange programme is not to present students with an opportunity to transfer to a more prestigious institution, just as how students allowed into a less popular programme in a university should not have expectations of transferring to a more reputable programme once they have obtained admission into the school. If contracts have to be enforced to prevent students from taking advantage of a loophole then it is truly a sad day for the programme.

mugster said...

Mr Wang, I don't want to get too moralistic about this issue. Why not visit the GIP website and see the effort put by the school into the program, and the excitement surrounding it. Then tell me if there is absolutely nothing unethical about leaving NTU halfway.

It's really not just about the money, but this brings in things about an implicit trust, which you don't seem to think local unis are capable of putting into students. As mentioned by NTU's President, personal development of the student is important, but also important is that students "continue to be closely connected with Singapore and its development and national identity".


And I don't think that the onus is on NTU to do soul-searching, the US is a super power, and of course its top notch universities will be better than our universities at this point of time. The history of some of their universities is longer than Singapore's history, is it not?

mugster said...

I also think its regrettable that you think it was not very clever of NTU to not contract its students first.

As it is, contracts already permeate every aspect of society, and we are becoming too litigious.

Getting students to sign contracts is easy. Deciding to trust is a more difficult and daring choice.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Heheh. Well, it all depends on how you look at it. I don't think that NTU previously made any great, grand, noble decision to trust its students. In all likelihood, it simply didn't occur to them that any of their GIP students might transfer halfway.

Now that this has actually happened, well, they are taking the logical step for future cases. They decide to use contracts. Which is perfectly sensible. It covers the commercial risk of financial loss.

I truly don't see much of a moral angle in this. I have not visited your link yet - I will, later - but I don't think it will change my mind. Institutions have their objectives and their own excitements and their own hype. You don't necessarily have to buy into any of it.

It's a bit like NDP. Some people all get excited and passionate about it and they think it's all about nationhood, patriotism etc. But other people think it's just entertainment and other people think it's a big yawn and other people think it's farcical. I don't think that necessarily connotes any immorality on their part.

If I really have to put a moral angle to this NTU story -

well, this one appeals to me most. Each of us owes a duty to ourselves to do our best and be the best that we can be. That applies to a lot of things, including education. You go where you can, and do what you must, to develop your mind fully.

Hoffnungsfunke the billygoat said...

The same thing applies to those on bonds. Is it ethical for people to break their bonds because better opportunities present themselves along the way? Note that these opportunities would not have been available had the bond, or in this case Mr Cheng's exchange programme, not been made available to him in the first place. It is the idea of biting the hand that feeds you that many people are unhappy with. --Chrischoo

Actually, when people break their scholarship bonds, they have to pay back what the scholarship has paid for their studies thus far with an additional added compound interest. I think it is 10% for PSC scholarships, and 15% for the A*STAR scholarships. I guess the rest are somewhere in between. Let us look at the case of the A*STAR scholarships for example, since it lasts for a very long time: 3 years for the undergraduate degree, and 5 years to get a PhD. So if an A*STAR scholar completes his PhD and decides to break his bond, he has to pay 15% compound interest over a period of the entire 8 years. I believe this adds up to more than TWICE what the scholarship board has forked out for that scholar's education.

Now people who jump ship usually are so good that they attract the attention of some large companies which are willing to bail them out of their scholarship contract by paying the amount as stated on the contract (unless they struck the lottery or have rich parents). In this case, A*STAR would get back TWICE of what they paid from a foreign company for every student who breaks the bond. Thus if 1 scholar breaks bond, A*STAR gets back enough to finance another two more people for the scholarship. If 50% of A*STAR scholars break their bond, A*STAR would get back enough to finance the entire next year's crop of scholars. This would be the best scholarship ever -- since it would be perpetually self-financing, and it's the foreign companies that pay the bill -- not a cent of taxpayers money is touched.

Thus I don't see why it is unethical as they pay back way more than what they owe, and if you are talking about someone else not getting that chance, well, the amount they pay back is enough to finance two more people. In fact, one of them gets a scholarship courtesy of the bond breaker!

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