The Problem with Scholarship Bond-Breakers

January 1st, 2003 by MrLuxuryFashionGuru
So here is what I think about the people who whine about their scholarship bonds – get over it already.  I simply do not accept the line of logic that goes, “Oh, but how can any 18 or 19-year-old be expected to make decisions about the next eleven years of their life?”  The truth is that everyone is faced with important decisions at that age, some of them having a more lasting impact than others, and the onus is on would-be scholars to make a well-informed decision (for which they have many tools at their disposal), and at the end of the day much of the griping demonstrates a desire to personally profit in the absence of personal risk and without concern for others. 

Let us start with the idea that signing a scholarship bond is something an 18 or 19-year-old should not be reasonably expected to do.  On the face of it that is simply preposterous.  Unless the person making this claim also believes that 19 year-olds should not be allowed to marry, stand trial for criminal actions, enter the armed forces, go to medical school (which carries a very similar bond in Singapore) or basically make any major decisions (for which they must bear the consequences), than this position is untenable.  Throughout human civilization virtually all 19-year-olds have had to make major, life-altering or even life-or-death decisions, or have been expected to.   




Of course, the fact that such decision-making is expected of and thrust upon many (if not all) adolescents may not mean that these expectations are reasonable or that the results are optimal, my first point is simply that these expectations are normal and well-established, in every time and place since recorded history began.  Whining, unhappy scholars are in no way unique in this respect and should not expect particular attention on this point unless they wish in retrospect that their right to make such decisions at that age be removed entirely (and also for wider society).

Furthermore, it is reasonable to think that potential scholars are well-placed to make good decisions with regard to the form, location and funding of their tertiary educations.  It is not as if each scholar was forced to make this decision in a vacuum – every potential scholar is welcome to investigate their options, likely prospects within the funding organisation and so on, with the explicit support of the funding organisations who want these decisions to be made in an optimal fashion for all involved.  

Also, these scholars-to-be, whom we can reasonably assume to be as intelligent as or perhaps more so than the “average” university applicant, largely have access to a large support network of friends, family, teachers, seniors and so on who can answer their questions, help them focus on the important factors and weigh the costs and benefits of their decision, whatever this may be.  It is eminently reasonable to expect that the individuals signing scholarship bonds are well aware of what they are signing up for and have considered the likely outcome from a personal standpoint and are happy with or at least willing to accept the terms.  In short, that they are making a well-informed, thoughtful and deliberate decision that they believe is in their best interests.  If they later change their minds because of completely unforeseeable circumstances, that may be considered reasonable, but truly how many scholars decide they are unhappy for unforeseeable reasons?  I have yet to personally hear any anecdotal complaints that sounded even remotely novel or unexpected.  They mostly run the tired gamut of “but I could have a better/more interesting/more glamorous job with colleagues/employers I like better, in a more liberal environment, with better compensation, overseas with my long-distance American/British significant other, where I could live more comfortably, pursuing a PhD which I can’t do here, in the research area I discovered a passion for in college…”  None of these reasons are trivial to those doing the grousing, of course (nor should they be), but neither are they surprising, unforeseeable developments.  The point is that these situations are ones which would-be scholars should have already considered when they agreed to accept the terms of the scholarship.  It is not hard to understand – in exchange for the cost of university education over a number of years, personal expenses, travel, in-house training, guaranteed fast-track career, a salary (and whatever other perks there are), each scholar agrees to give up the freedom to pick their employer, job-location and specific job-type for a number of years.  That is the contract they have signed, and they should be prepared to honour it. 



Some disgruntled bonded scholars will naturally say that if they are truly unhappy, they should be allowed to leave.  I would respond by saying that if they were indeed desperately, violently or depressively unhappy then sure, they should be allowed to break their bonds (and my hunch is that this is the status quo).  However, this begs the question as to how and why they could have become so extremely unhappy.  Again, I can accept completely unforeseeable or extra-ordinary (or even merely uncommon) circumstances as a legitimate cause, but virtually all foreseeable causes should not result in such a drastic situation.  But back to the idea of being “truly unhappy”, leaving aside clinical depression, how unhappy is “truly unhappy”?  The problem is that outside from the kind of major psychological problem just discussed, almost nothing can be reasonably considered “truly unhappy”.  From the perspective of the scholarship-granting organization, the point is not whether the scholar feels that they could be happier elsewhere, but whether they can be happy and productive for the period of their bond and beyond with the organisation, as these scholars have formally agreed to at least try to do.  It would be unreasonable to expect that the government (or any scholarship-making organisation) should be prepared to disburse large sums of money over many years while in practice being very lax in holding scholars to their bonds.  Thus, when it comes to foreseeable challenges, everything from mild dissatisfaction (“the culture in this office is so parochial sometimes, and my boss can be very uninformed”) to grudging grouses (“I had to turn down that lucrative private sector overseas job offer”) are simply issues that scholars have agreed to work through, and scholarship-granting organisations should not be expected to relax their expectations.  (In other words: shut up, grin and bear it, like you said you would.)  



This brings us to the next common complaint from unhappy scholars – that there should not be any moral stigma associated with bond-breaking, mainly because they have already paid back the money spent by the organisation on their university education.  And not just that, the aggrieved will emphasize, but paid back with interest!   Therefore, these (pre-/ex-)scholars will reason, they no longer owe the organisation (or society) anything and have done nothing wrong.  This reasoning convinces lots of people (in my experience often people considering breaking their bonds) but there are at least two glaring problems with that logic.  The first has to do with the terms of their scholarship, and the second has to do with the (moral) meaning of contracts.  



Remember, these scholarship organisations were not acting as banks making educational loans.  In return for their investment in time, effort and money, these scholarship-granting organisations were expecting in return something other than money, and in some ways worth intangibly more than the time and money spent.  They were contracting to have in their service an educated graduate who would be familiar with and committed to the organisation for at least the bond-period.  In other words, unless scholarship bond-breakers can give the organisation such a graduate, they have not, as they may want to believe, “paid back” their bond, and even if these ex-scholars could supply such a graduate, they would not have fulfilled the exact terms of their scholarship (which applied to them individually).  The money they have to pay is instead a penalty, or damages owed the scholarship-granting organisation when a scholar reneges on their contract.  It is organisations cutting their losses after a bad transaction.  



Next, we come to the idea that “transaction” and “contract” are morally neutral business terms like “interest rate” and “delivery schedule”.  Simply put, this line of thought is just false.  Even generally, transactions and contracts often do carry a moral value, such as when pharmaceutical companies are setting prices for HIV/AIDS medications or when Shell decides to transact with the internationally-unrecognised and politically-repressive Nigerian government or when a construction firm contracts with the government to build elevated highways that conform to established building codes.  Clearly, it is the actual content (and its wider context and implications) of the transaction or contract that determine its association with morality.  When it comes to scholarships in particular, there is quite evidently the larger, societal issue of educational opportunity and meritocracy which many scholars (including those who break their bonds) would recognise introduces a moral dimension.  The fact is that scholarships represent a zero-sum game, as do opportunities for university education, to a certain extent.  By taking up a scholarship, scholars have also taken up the social responsibility to honour the terms of that contract (just as the building contractor building power plants, office buildings or transport networks to-specification); in this case that responsibility is to be educated for an agreed specified purpose.  This is especially true for government scholars where the scholarship board is selecting scholars to serve the people or even run the country.  Of course, the worst case scenario morally is the scholar who pretends to be completely committed to serving the organisation in order to be offered the scholarship when this is not the case, right from the beginning.  This amounts to little more than fraud, which is intuitively morally wrong. At this point it should be briefly mentioned that at least one way to understand the immorality (and not just the illegality) associated with the non-fulfilment of a contract (expressed intuitively by words like “untrustworthy” and “dishonourable”) is to consider that the honouring of contracts and the reasonable expectation that contracts will be honoured is what allows society to function effectively (or at all, Realist political scientists would say).  Working from this starting point, contracts and contract theory form the basis for an entire established brand of morality within the philosophical tradition.  No one should be surprised to find that scholarship bond-breakers are often judged as immoral if morality is so firmly rooted in the honouring of contracts.  



At the end of the day, my guess is that many of the disgruntled (ex-)scholars I have in mind are well aware of the points I have just made (especially since many of them no doubt took university classes that extensively discussed law, philosophy and morality) but are willing to ignore or downplay them, while focusing on reasoning that revolves around their personal emotions, desires and opportunities.  Of course this kind of self-preoccupation (or selfishness, if you like) is neither unusual nor even necessarily worthy of any moral judgement.  However, in the case of scholars, who have deliberately and willingly committed themselves to a particular and important social or organisational role in exchange for the various benefits of their scholarship, such a willingness to ignore the moral (and wider) implications of their actions demonstrates a certain level of impatient callousness and overriding self-concern that is indeed shameful to observe, whether it be in scholars, or in politicians, teachers, and medical practitioners (not to mention any other occupation).  


As a final postscript, I will say that I would not be the least bit surprised if there are perfectly reasonable cases to be made for individual scholars who want to break their bonds.  They are welcome to argue, for example, that by instead doing (insert whatever it is they want to do after breaking their scholarship bond), they can contribute more to society or to the world (an often un-provable argument which still does not refute any of the facts about contracts and its association with morality).  Or, as I have consistently recognised, there may be extraordinary or unforeseeable circumstances affecting that particular scholar.  Nevertheless, as I see it there is simply no generalised argument to absolve all (or even most) scholars who wish to break, or have already broken, their scholarship bonds of the fact that they are acting badly and should be (a)shamed.  It is their individual duty to make a case out of their own unique circumstances.  If everyone did just that, it would probably be easier for those who truly should be allowed to break their bonds to do so since they would not be confused with the run-of-the-mill disaffected and impatient scholar longing for greener pastures.   

(Fall 2005)

NB: I am not (and have never been) bonded to any scholarship-granting organisation, something I decided quite quickly was best for me.













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