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Commentary: Even as universities close lecture halls and go online, studying abroad is still the dream

In a post-COVID world, Singaporeans considering an overseas education will likely be more discerning about where they apply to, says an observer.

Commentary: Even as universities close lecture halls and go online, studying abroad is still the dream

(Photo: Unsplash/Mohammad Shahhosseini)

SINGAPORE: As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the 23,715 Singaporeans enrolled in universities overseas are wringing their hands.

Will they be allowed back on campus? Or will they have to stay home and grapple with online lessons, which may take place in topsy-turvy time zones?

Some may be left hanging with mixed messages from on high. On Jul 6, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that all non-resident students in American colleges enrolled only in online classes will have to leave the country, or face deportation.

But following lawsuits brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the decision was reversed within a week.

READ: Commentary: Sending international students home will hurt the US more than benefit it

READ: Commentary: How ready are Singapore universities to start the new term as COVID-19 rages on?

It is unlikely that other countries, particularly those popular with Singaporean students, will impose sweeping restrictions like those that America did.

Many universities in popular study aboard destinations such as Australia and the UK are dependent on income from overseas students. In 2018, international onshore student revenue accounted for more than a quarter of all universities’ revenue in Australia.

With COVID-19 forcing countries to close their borders, what do the prospects for Singaporeans keen to pursue an overseas education look like?


It’s an understatement to say there won’t be a return to normal campus life at the start of the new semester.

Bikes are seen outside Cambridge University, as the spread of COVID-19 continues. (FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge)

Prestigious universities from Cambridge to Harvard will deliver all lectures online for the academic year of 2020 to 2021. Singaporean students, regardless of if they’re overseas or at home, will in all likelihood have to attend virtual classes this fall.

The shift to virtual classes rightly prioritises the health of students but could result in some learning loss. The educators we work with have observed how online classes reduces interactivity with their students, making it challenging to personalise lessons based on real-time feedback.

READ: Commentary: It is time to rethink how we do online education


Moving overseas to study can be a traumatic experience. My former colleague, a Singaporean who recently embarked on her post-graduate studies in the Netherlands, struggled with loneliness during her first few months of the programme.

Despite having travelled extensively, she found it trying to adjust to a new culture with few friendly faces to count on. 

Students who began their overseas education at the start of this year – before lockdowns were enforced – may not have had the time or opportunity to build up a strong social network. They may feel isolated in a foreign country, and struggle to remain motivated and committed to their studies.

READ: Commentary: The coronavirus is sending universities back to school

Even more worrying than a sense of isolation is the rise of racism targeting those who appear East Asian.

During the early stages of the outbreak in February, Jonathan Mok, a Singaporean student at University College London, was the unfortunate victim of a coronavirus-related racist attack.

Since then, I’ve seen on social media anecdotes from friends and acquaintances of racist abuse, largely verbal, in foreign countries.  Fortunately, most cases were not as violent as Mr Mok’s, but nonetheless caused great distress to the victims and their loved ones.

A university student wears her mortar hat following her graduation ceremony from the School of Commerce at the University of Sydney in Australia, Apr 22, 2016. (File photo: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Unfortunately, with increasingly nationalist rhetoric from certain world leaders, it is unlikely we’ll see an end to such antagonism soon.

READ: Commentary: Please don’t shout ‘coronavirus’ at people


Recent or soon-to-be graduates who intend to work in their host country may have their plans thrown into disarray.

Mr Gavin Ng, a Singaporean PhD candidate at the University of Illinois, had received a job offer in April as a data scientist with Uber.

However, that offer was rescinded just a month later. The ride sharing behemoth is struggling to keep afloat, having laid off a quarter of its workforce globally in May due to the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns.

With the pandemic likely to cause the worst recession since the Great Depression, most countries would be focused on channelling any available employment opportunities to citizens.

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As institutions worldwide shift towards online learning, many will question the value of enrolling in a university overseas.

But online learning in tertiary institutions is not a new trend by any measure. Over the past decade, platforms like EdX and Coursera have offered MOOCs – massive open online courses – designed by universities and companies such as MIT and Microsoft.

In some cases, students can earn certifications that are stackable for a degree. EdX has a MicroBachelors programme that provides students with accreditation from established universities like New York University and Arizona State University.

These programmes are significantly more affordable than traditional degree programmes, and allow students to complete the course at their own pace, making them particularly popular with mature learners juggling work and family.

(Photo: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio)

Yet MOOCs have not been seen by most as a substitute for a campus-based education, particularly in a premier institutions. In a post-COVID world, Singaporeans considering an overseas education will likely be more discerning about where they apply to.

The cost of an overseas university education is still significantly higher than one at a local university. An average three-year undergraduate programme at the latter costs around S$25,000, compared to £10,000 (S$18,000) and upwards per year at a UK university.

So if students are going to fork out much more for an overseas education – especially if what they’re getting in return is mostly virtual lectures and seminars – they are going to want the biggest bang for their buck.

With the increased proliferation of online learning spurred by COVID-19, a campus-based overseas higher education will only remain attractive at elite institutions.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19’s education revolution - where going digital is just half the battle

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Beyond providing their students with quality education, the allure of pedigree schools have more to do with their non-academic perks.

Higher education is a stratified sector, where the name of the institution is often as valuable as the knowledge gained. Marketing can only do so much – the perceived worth of institutions is often built over long periods of time, even centuries.

If pay is any reflection, then employers buy into the brand names of schools too.

From 2015 onwards, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis has consistently reported Ivy League graduates landing the highest starting salary compared to their non-Ivy League peers. Their median starting salary was 55 per cent more than that of US private university graduates in 2019.

A university student graduation. (Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder) FILE PHOTO: Students take their seats for the diploma ceremony at the John F. Kennedy School of Government during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The other draw of top schools is the opportunity to work closely with world-renowned academics. This will still be possible in an online learning environment, though the lack of face-to-face interaction will dilute the experience and its value.

The best ideas are often the result of heated debates between great minds, and despite the advancements in technology, it’s hard to fully capture the nuances of human interaction online.

Singaporeans also pursue an overseas education to master their craft. Olympic gold-medallist Joseph Schooling, for instance, chose to enrol at the University of Texas at Austin to train with a former coach of the US Olympic swimming team.

Musicians and artists would also want to study abroad for the same reasons.

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READ: Commentary: Why sports still has a place in Singapore


When international students can return to campus remains a huge question mark. Many countries are only beginning to lift lockdowns, while some states such as Victoria, Australia are forced to re-enter lockdowns due to sudden spikes in infections.

Countries are also more likely to focus on reopening schools before they turn their attention to universities.

But the allure of an overseas university education will likely persist. Once the prerogative of wealthy families and brilliant scholars; an overseas university education is now more accessible to Singapore’s growing middle class.

In the longer term, as COVID-19 begins to recede or a vaccine is developed, an overseas education, particularly at top schools, will remain the dream for ambitious Singaporeans.

Vignesh Naidu is Director, Operations at The HEAD Foundation.

Source: CNA/el


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