SINGAPORE: Most international students at Singapore's autonomous universities are back here for classes in the new semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with some choosing to continue with online classes from overseas.
For first-year Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student Mihika Agarwal, coming to Singapore to begin her freshman year meant taking a flight from her home in Kolkata to Hyderabad before flying to Singapore. She arrived on Sep 11 and is currently serving her 14-day stay-home notice period.
“Because I'm a freshman student entering college right away, college is more about the entire college experience rather than just the academics,” said the 19-year-old, explaining why she decided not to take the semester online from Kolkata.
“I have these other friends of mine, who are maybe going to the United States or the UK, and they aren't really getting an opportunity to go there right now because their classes are totally online. But since I have been given an opportunity ... I thought it was a good decision to go on campus.”
For the new semester, universities have opted for a mix of online and offline classes depending on the field of study, with large-scale lectures still held online.
Responding to queries from CNA, the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) said the majority of their international students have returned to Singapore.
“We will continue to support the remaining international students with the submission of their applications to the relevant agencies to obtain the necessary approvals,” said an NUS spokesperson.
The majority of SUTD’s students arrived in Singapore to serve out their 14-day stay-home notice before the semester began on Sep 14, said the university’s spokesperson.
“Those who are unable to arrive in time, due to difficulties in securing flights out of their home country, will be able to join classes remotely in the meantime,” added the spokesperson.
Singapore Management University (SMU) said "a number” of international students have returned to Singapore for the new academic year.
It is also helping the remaining students submit applications for the relevant approvals for them to return to Singapore.
The four universities said they remain in contact with the students who are overseas and are supporting them with online classes.
“We acknowledge that online learning cannot fully replace the on-campus education experience, and hope that our international students who are still awaiting entry into Singapore will be able to join us on campus when it is safe and practical for them to do so,” said the NUS spokesperson.
For SMU international students, those who may not want to take on online learning options can choose to take a leave of absence for the term, said the university.
PROS AND CONS OF ONLINE LEARNING
For second-year NUS student Shreya Sanganeria, she decided to continue her studies with NUS from India, after finding out that her faculty's classes would be going completely online for this semester.
“That basically gave me the confidence to continue my semester from India,” the economics major told CNA.
She returned home in May by an evacuation flight, and in June, a decision was needed on whether she wanted to return to Singapore for the next semester and keep her room on campus.
At the time, there were no international flights from India to Singapore.
“Technically, I did not have much of an option to not fly back. And apart from that, I was a little sceptical because I’ve not really had a proper virtual semester,” said the 19-year-old.
Despite deciding not to return to Singapore for the semester, Ms Sanganeria said she was not sure whether she could manage an entire semester taking classes and extracurricular commitments online from overseas.
Currently, all of the lectures are recorded to allow students to watch them in their own time, she said. Students are also given a choice of tutorial slots to ensure that those logging in from overseas can account for the time difference.
“I don't feel like I'm missing out on the knowledge aspect because it's pretty much the same. But for the people, the interaction aspect, I do feel that I'm not able to interact with people as much because it's different when you're face to face and then you get to know more people,” she told CNA.
“When it's virtual, it's a lot more restricted because people don't generally open up virtually and everyone just does their own thing. And then we just end the class, so there's not much interaction with students from my module who I do not already know.
"So I feel like a virtual semester has this drawback where the interaction becomes less as compared to before.”
It is a view shared by Ms Agarwal.
"The ease with which you can ask questions to the professor in between classes or lectures, I don't think that freedom is already there on a Zoom call with maybe 150 students," she said.
Although she decided to travel to Singapore, the decision did not come easy.
She only received her offer letter from NTU on Aug 14, during the first week of the semester.
At the time, she had already given up on the idea of studying in Singapore because she thought universities here were accepting fewer international students due to the pandemic and was about to begin her studies in India.
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“When I received that offer I was actually in two minds, even though going to Singapore was like my first preference because of the opportunities and everything,” she told CNA, adding that it was difficult to “change that mindset”,especially after finally deciding to attend university back home.
“But my decision mainly was based on the fact that I did not really consider the COVID-19 situation, because I think that would be a very short-term thought process,” added Ms Agarwal.
“I had to look at the bigger picture, maybe five years down the line. And I'm sure five years down the line, there is going to be some improvement or maybe a maximum improvement in the COVID-19 situation.”
Adding that she is “excited” to begin her studies at NTU, she said: “Sure, some classes are going to be online and some are going to be offline, at least I won’t be missing out on any part of it, either online or offline, I will be taking both of them. So I think that's a major plus point being on campus.”