SINGAPORE: For many Singaporean students, pursuing an overseas university education sounds like a dream come true. A few years spent in a foreign country, making friends from all over the world, studying the subject of your choice in a prestigious institute.
Each year, thousands of Singaporeans pursue this dream. Between 2017 and 2018, 7,020 students from Singapore studied in the UK, according to data collected across universities there.
However, COVID-19 has undermined that dream.
Travel restrictions could mean getting to your preferred university may be challenging, if not impossible. Coming back to Singapore for vacations will probably involve a 15-day period of isolation. Classes may be conducted remotely. There are likely to be limits on social activities.
With studying overseas much more expensive than attending a university in Singapore, some might consider whether the current circumstances make pursuing the dream worthwhile.
But not everyone is thinking like that.
Nancy Xu, 18, is determined that the pandemic will not stop her from pursuing her studies overseas. She hopes to study geography or urban planning at a UK university, as she has her eye on certain classes that are not available in Singaporean universities.
"I don't think the pandemic is something that's super concerning for me or my parents, they're more focused on the prestige of the school. If I were to get into a good UK university, I wouldn't think that the pandemic would deter them from sending me there, because they're not especially worried about it," Ms Xu told CNA.
Adding that her parents are also not that concerned about the cost or that most classes may be held online on Zoom, she said that as some Singapore universities are also conducting virtual classes, "even with the higher fee, it wouldn't really deter them from wanting me to go to a more prestigious university".
WATCH: COVID-19: Students turn to alternative arrangements as universities suspend overseas placements
With international travel at a standstill, students like Ms Xu have to apply and interview for their places in overseas universities from Singapore.
Ms Xu, who is sitting for her A-Level examinations this year, applied to several universities in the UK, noting that the application process this year is a "simpler version".
"For example, I applied for Cambridge, and instead of having people (their admission tutors) fly over for interviews like last time, this year they can't do that, so everything is conducted remotely," she told CNA.
"The interviews have all been cut short, and I know a lot of my friends were not able to secure interviews because they could not get their professors to be available to interview them," she said.
While she is relieved that someone was available for her interview, the processes have been "not as thorough", but she is not sure how this will affect her chances.
Applying and getting accepted is just the beginning. Returning students and those that have already been accepted need to apply for student visas, sort out a place to live and find flights that can bring them overseas amid border restrictions.
After arriving in the country, they may face lockdowns in their student accommodation, or find themselves unable to return home. All this on top of possibly being infected with COVID-19.
For example, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Nov 13 that it would not allow foreign students to return, as priority is being given to the return of locals stuck overseas. Its borders have been closed to all non-citizens and permanent residents since March.
With foreign students worth about A$35 billion (US$25.3 billion) a year to the Australian economy, Canberra had hoped to slowly allow overseas students to return in 2021. Trials began earlier this year.
But with thousands of Australians still wanting to return, Mr Morrison said there are not enough quarantine facilities.
The UK has the biggest official death toll in Europe from COVID-19 and is grappling with more than thousands of new coronavirus cases a day at the moment. On Oct 31, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered England back into a lockdown.
Universities remain open, but people will only be allowed to leave home for specific reasons such as education, work, exercise, shopping for essentials and medicines or caring for the vulnerable.
The number of new international students enrolled at US universities online or in person fell by 43 per cent this autumn, according to a survey of more than 700 students released on Nov 16.
Including both new and returning students, total international enrolment fell by 16 per cent, and the survey found that among those who did enrol, about one in five were studying online from abroad.
Responding to a parliamentary question in October, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said the autonomous universities (AUs) in Singapore provided more degree places this year, "in anticipation of higher demand" from students whose overseas study plans were disrupted by COVID-19.
"The AUs extended their application windows by two months, and made around 2,000 more offers to local applicants across a range of courses," said the education ministry.
MOE is prepared to continue adjusting the number of degree places in the autonomous universities if necessary, taking into account the number of Singaporeans who meet admissions standards and the medium- to long-term national manpower demand for graduates across different sectors, it said at the time.
READ: COVID-19: What is preventing countries lifting border restrictions to travellers from Singapore?
MOST CONTINUE TO FLY OVERSEAS
But like Ms Xu, some Singaporean students still appear to have an appetite for overseas university education, despite the hurdles posed by COVID-19.
Education consultancy theRightU saw 80 to 85 per cent of their student clients who had places in UK universities fly there to go ahead with their studies in person.
"And this batch of students who left for the September intake would have had six months of consideration through this COVID period from March to September. So they would have seen the impact and made a very informed decision, to go or not to go," said Dr Chan Khai Leok, director of theRightU.
"I think the numbers didn't come naturally. The numbers came through quite a lot of work, both from the universities and from our end to help the students understand the situation over there, to help them understand the measures that have been put in place by the universities."
The team sends "hundreds" of students overseas every year, to the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, said Dr Chan.
This year, about 5 to 10 per cent of students decided not to go overseas to study at all because they found it unsafe and had alternatives in Singapore, he added. Another 5 to 10 per cent decided to defer their studies to the next intake.
Despite the pandemic, the total number of student clients with theRightU who went overseas for their studies this year is more compared to last year, said Dr Chan.
"The number of students who actually braved the climate and decided to fly over was actually a surprisingly large number. We were actually a little surprised as well with the outcome," he added.
UK-bound students "haven't had major issues" going overseas to continue their studies, said Dr Chan.
"It is still as per normal, meaning that they're still able to find flights to the UK, maybe a bit more expensive and a bit less frequent but definitely they are still able to get flights," he added.
SCHOOLS CONTINUE TO SEE 'COMPARABLE NUMBERS'
In response to CNA queries, a spokesperson for the London School of Economics (LSE) said 2020 has seen "comparable numbers" of undergraduates, and a "marginally lower than average number" of postgraduate registrations from Singapore.
The university accepts about 86 new undergraduates and 80 new post-graduate students each year from Singapore, the spokesperson added.
Overall international student numbers at LSE are higher this year than they were last year, and "anticipated withdrawals have not occurred", said the spokesperson.
It is "impossible to attribute this variation to a single factor", although the university is currently offering a "flexible approach" to teaching, and students can take classes online without travelling internationally to be on campus.
Trinity University in Dublin registered more than 200 students from Singapore in each academic year between 2016 and 2019. In the 2019/20 academic year, before the pandemic emerged,158 Singaporean students registered there. The situation has changed in the current academic year, with COVID-19 being cited as a possible factor.
"Unfortunately because of the unusual circumstances and delays of this year we do not have a definitive picture for this full year but there has been a sizeable decline at this point in time," said a university spokesperson, noting that this figure does not include the joint physiotherapy degree with the Singapore Institute of Technology.
This "may be" due to students choosing not to go overseas for university due to health and travel safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have seen an impact in particular on overseas students who are on one-year programmes and thus took the logical decision not to travel. We assume this is the case with Singapore," she added.
The deadline for enrolment this year has been extended, noted the spokesperson, and the university has seen overall declines in the number of international students, but "generally" not from students on three- and four-year programmes.
Australian universities saw similar trends. Curtin University in Perth saw 404 Singaporean students in its 2020 intake, comparable with its intake of 413 students in 2019. It accepted 362 Singaporean students in 2018.
The university "cannot speculate" on the reasons for the slight decrease in numbers between 2019 and 2020, said a spokesperson. "However we do know that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the international study plans for some students."
About 90 per cent of international students were already in the country preparing for the start of the first semester in March when Australia's borders closed due to COVID-19, said the Curtin University spokesperson.
A "small number" of students, mainly from Singapore, returned to their home countries during the first semester and continued their classes online.
"The international travel ban that has been in place since March has prevented many of our international students from physically returning to campus. Fortunately, most have continued their studies at Curtin online," the spokesperson added, noting that some face-to-face teaching has resumed for most classes due to the low rates of COVID-19 infection in Western Australia.
READ: COVID-19: Most foreign students back in Singapore for university, some to continue online classes overseas
When the pandemic was in full swing in the first half of this year, some international students at the University of Queensland chose to defer their studies, said deputy vice-chancellor of external engagement Li Rongyu.
But for the second semester, which ended on Oct 31, the university saw "higher than anticipated demand" for its programmes from international students, including students from Singapore.
The university sees about 1000 Singaporean students each year.
International enrolments at the University of Sydney is just 3.6 per cent lower than anticipated, and 40 per cent of the university's international students are studying remotely from countries including Singapore.
The university has 850 students from Singapore this year, compared to almost 1,000 in 2018 and 2019, said a spokesperson for the university.
"We've been pleasantly surprised by our enrolments figures this year, which have been much stronger than we expected at the start of the pandemic."
Despite the closed borders, the Australian universities were confident that the country would remain attractive to international students, especially with the low rates of COVID-19 there.
"We also know the value of the on-campus experience, and are continuing to work with governments on plans for the safe return and arrival of our international students, and can’t wait to welcome all our students back to campus as soon as it is safe to do so," said the University of Sydney spokesperson.
'A SINGAPORE PHENOMENON'
The consistent number of students going overseas for their studies could be "a Singapore phenomenon", said Dr Chan. Other countries are seeing a "significant" drop in the number of students heading overseas.
"Singapore might have a little drop, but it's not as significant as other countries...because there are other factors at play that maybe Singaporeans are not so affected by," he added.
For example, some parents may decide not to send their children overseas amid an economic downturn because of the expensive fees, but this may be less of an issue for more affluent families in Singapore.
Singaporean students also have "no issue" getting student visas, but students of other nationalities may face problems, Dr Chan noted. These students risk having to drop out halfway, wasting time and money.
Even though students can pursue their studies in person on campus, not all of them choose to do so. Master's student Orion Dai chose to remain in Singapore because all his classes are conducted online.
The 27-year-old started his course at Imperial College London in September, and made the call to stay in Singapore in July after finding out all his classes would be conducted remotely. His visa was also unlikely to be approved in time, he told CNA.
"There wasn't really a strong motivating factor to go, as the cost of living there is really high. And since the lessons are already remote, going there is kind of not productive. You need to pay just to stay there," Mr Dai said.
"I can do the same from Singapore, and I can do other stuff during the day as well...even my course mates are not physically present in London, so there's really not much reason for me to go this semester."
Mr Dai attends lessons online from Singapore between 6pm and 1am. He spends the daytime on coursework, grouped with students in similar timezones.
"The bad part is that we do not get to interact with people from the other side of the world because of the time difference. While it makes strategic sense, I think in terms of the scope and the general takeaway from having an international degree, it doesn't really benefit us more."
Taking his classes at night also allows him to work on a startup with some friends during the day. "Even though the experience of studying overseas is diminished, I feel like it's being sort of made up for by the fact that I can pursue something locally and I can balance both sides. That wasn't really an opportunity before," he added.
However, the online experience "definitely does not hold up" to what students would originally want from an overseas university experience, said Mr Dai, citing the lack of in-person interaction and missing out on experiences outside of the curriculum.
"The school I'm going to is quite prestigious in the European scene, so normally they will have a lot of seminars, a lot of guest speakers coming down to talk to them. That's no longer possible," he added.
"They have it on Zoom, but it's really hard to single out the speaker and talk to him after to get somecontacts."
Mr Dai's two-year course costs about S$45,000 a year, and he is on a scholarship. He applied in March with "high hopes" that the pandemic would improve.
Addressing why many Singaporean students are keen to attend university overseas, education expert Jason Tan said that like Mr Dai, many students think a degree from a prestigious overseas university is valuable.
"They think that will open up a lot more social networks and work opportunities, internships overseas, and so on," said the Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education (NIE) Department of Policy and Leadership Studies.
"Of course, we have to remember that there's a considerable cost differential between doing your degree here and doing it overseas, especially with the expansion of local university places," said Assoc Prof Tan.
"So if you are able to qualify for a local university place, then one of the crucial factors that will affect your decision one way or the other is this - what difference will it actually make if I opt to pay much more for an overseas degree?"
For 18-year-old Davis Lim, going overseas for university means meeting new people and new opportunities to engage with people from all over the world.
After his National Service obligations, he intends to pursue the instrumentalities of arts and humanities, and overseas degrees in this area are "more prestigious", he added.
"Right now I'm still keen on going because I'm thinking that maybe after two years, the pandemic will come down and it will be a lot easier (to go overseas)," said Mr Lim, who is sitting for his A Level examinations this year.
"But if it continues then most likely I'll stay in Singapore because it's a lot more dangerous to travel. And the tuition fees are very expensive, and if I'm going to be doing it over Zoom, then it's not really worth it."
For now, the COVID-19 pandemic is "a temporary dampener" on students' plans to study overseas, especially since lessons are conducted online and student activities are cancelled, said Assoc Prof Tan.
"So in that case, it doesn't make much sense to be paying so much in fees if you're not going to be able to enjoy the whole student experience. Especially if you're going to be physically based in Singapore, it really doesn't make much sense. And of course, the university won't reduce their fees," said Assoc Prof Tan.
"But at the same time though, when the COVID-19 pandemic eventually passes and comes under control, I think that there's still quite a considerable demand for overseas education."
According to Dr Chan, parents expressed similar concerns. Most parents and students were "quite keen" to take classes on campus in person.
"Partly because they would have paid so much, so it doesn't make sense to stay home and study online," he added.
The "vast majority" of parents expected schools and the borders to be fully closed like in Singapore, and were concerned about how teaching was going to be done.
"But the biggest concerns were around not so much COVID-19 safety, but physical safety. They would have heard of ostracism of Chinese and Asian students, so that was actually the bigger concerns," said Dr Chan.
COULD A VACCINE CHANGE THE TIDE?
With a COVID-19 vaccine seemingly on the horizon, he predicts that Singapore will see even more students going to study overseas next year.
There is "a good pool" of students who delayed their decision to pursue overseas studies this year, and this could result in two scenarios, said Dr Chan.
"One, a vaccine is developed, everybody gets vaccinated, and the world is safe again. This pent up demand will lead to an increase in demand," he added.
"If the pandemic persists, then people who delayed their studies, I don't think they will wait any further. Especially for diploma holders, it's hard for them to find a job in Singapore in this climate, a lot of them are just sitting at home and not doing much. An alternative would be to spend the time wisely, just proceed and study anyway."
As this batch of students successfully completes a year of overseas studies amid the pandemic, this would also boost the confidence of hesitant students and parents, encouraging to do the same, said Dr Chan.
Since the UK went into a national lockdown on Oct 31, Mr Dai anticipates that classes next semester will also be held remotely. If they are, he would "definitely" continue to take his classes from Singapore.
He will only consider returning to the UK for his studies if life returns to "some level of normalcy", he told CNA.
"Not just classes (have to return to normal), maybe the travel restrictions and all that stuff too, if by some miracle it can be lifted or reduced.
"Going over there it's not just about going to school, but rather also travelling in the nearby regions, going around to visit some friends. If that has been eased as well, I think there's definitely stronger motivation to go, not just go there and only go to school."
Noting that he will weigh the pros and cons of staying in Singapore and heading to the UK, Mr Dai said: "In Singapore, we are free to move around. I can meet friends, I can work on my startup.
"If I were to go there and can only go to school, which I can already do online from here, I think the pros and cons do not really weigh out for me. I think it has to return to some level of normalcy before I can consider that."