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Lecturers stranded abroad as a new academic year begins

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
7 min read

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The new academic year has opened at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), with classes starting on 10 August. But some classes won’t be going ahead as planned, as international faculty members find themselves stranded outside of the country due to pandemic restrictions.

Last year, I wrote about long-term pass holders caught in a bind because they weren’t able to get permission to return to Singapore. Speaking to NTU academics over a year later, it feels like things haven’t changed much.

A number of international faculty employed by NTU, who have travelled abroad for a variety of reasons — including family emergencies and care-giving responsibilities — are now unable to make it back before the start of the new academic year. Like other long-term pass holders, they have to apply for approval before they can travel back to Singapore.

Under the Ministry of Manpower’s rules, work pass holders returning from different countries have to fulfill different entry requirements. For example, those entering Singapore from “Group 1” countries like New Zealand or Brunei will have to take a Covid-19 test and only isolate themselves until they get a negative result. Others will have to serve seven- or 14-day Stay Home Notices, either in dedicated facilities or at home, depending on the country they’re coming from and their living arrangements. Those coming from countries that have seen large numbers of Covid-19 cases in recent months, such as India, Myanmar, or Pakistan, are “not allowed to enter Singapore until further notice”.

But all this is still contingent on receiving entry approval in the first place. According to the Work Pass Holder General Lane page on the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority’s website, new entry applications can only be accepted from pass holders who have spent 21 consecutive days in Brunei, Hong Kong, Macau, China, or New Zealand before travelling to Singapore.

“We understand these measures are difficult for employers and their pass holders, and seek understanding on the need for these control measures to keep Singapore safe,” the page says. “We are currently working towards allowing new applications and will provide updates on this shortly.”

If they aren’t back by now, it seems unlikely that many of the international faculty currently overseas will be back before classes begin on Tuesday. This might not seem like a problem at a time when the idea of online classes has become much more common and normalised, particularly since Singapore has also gone back to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) measures. Work-from-home is meant to be the default and people are advised to avoid crowded venues. The university’s “FAQs on Covid-19” page states: “Between now till 20 August, lessons will generally be conducted online, unless otherwise advised. In-person lessons will resume from 23 August, barring any changes in the national COVID-19 guidelines.”

Yet the stranded academics say they’ve been told that, unless granted compassionate leave, they will not be allowed to teach their classes remotely, even if these online classes could technically be taught from anywhere. On top of this, once their annual leave days are all used up, they will be shifted to no-pay leave and therefore receive no salary for the period that they are away. While some classes can be covered by colleagues, other courses have been cancelled, and students asked to register for alternatives.

For this story, I spoke to NTU faculty members abroad as well as those currently in Singapore. I also reached out to NTU students to find out more about the situation from their point of view. Like I did with last year’s story, I've replaced names with random initials where necessary.

Academics told me that, before leaving Singapore, they had to get permission from the university. They also said that they were required to sign undertakings with clauses stating that they’d “assume all risks” associated with their decision to travel out of Singapore, and “undertake full responsibility” for all the consequences of their own actions. Another clause notes that no-pay leave will apply if their allotted annual leave isn’t enough to cover the period they’re away.

Family obligations meant that F had to travel out of Singapore. They’d planned on returning to Singapore before term time, but thought that, if anything happened, the contingency plan would be to teach remotely until they could get back. Instead, their classes have been cancelled, and they've been placed on no-pay leave. Despite being willing and able to work remotely, they are now facing a situation where they will have no salary, but will need to continue paying rent for their university flat in Singapore. They have no idea when they’ll be let back into the country; it could be in a couple of days, or weeks from now.

What adds to the frustration of this limbo, F says, is that there is no clear explanation for NTU's policy or decisions. Based on what I’ve been told, even those who have been granted compassionate leave, and thus allowed to teach their classes remotely, will only be paid for the days that they teach. It’s a decision that has been described as “bonkers”: based on this payment system, a professor whose classes are clustered within two or three days will only be paid for those days, while another with the same number of teaching hours, but with classes spread across all five days of the week, will receive full pay. It also ignores the fact that academics do work even on the days they don’t have classes, and that teaching online might even require more work in terms of planning and coordination than in-person lessons.

One faculty member, K, told me they felt like this was “like penalising faculty for daring to leave the safe environs of Singapore”, while another thought that it was meant to be a “deterrent” to dissuade those in Singapore from thinking about going anywhere.

It would, of course, save university administrators a lot of work if everyone were to just stay put and not go anywhere during the pandemic. But as long as one has a sizeable number of immigrant employees, it's to be expected that there will be people who need to travel. The faculty members I spoke to talked about homesickness and the strain on mental health caused by both the pandemic and their distance from loved ones. While many might still choose to stay in Singapore despite not having seen their families for a year-and-a-half, given the administrative hassle and uncertainty over changing restrictions, others have had little choice but to travel because they were needed elsewhere. They say that NTU cannot sell itself as an attractive place for foreign academics to work if they aren't prepared to look out for the needs of its international staff.

During our conversation, K emphasised that their colleagues were “incredibly supportive”, but expressed concern that those colleagues' classes might be over-enrolled, or that they might have to take on extra work, to cover for those who are abroad. However, those I spoke to who are currently in Singapore say they haven’t been asked to take on extra classes, although they acknowledge that the situation might be different in other schools, or that the intake for some modules might increase. Regardless of this current situation, the pandemic itself has required more work and emotional labour from educators trying to be mindful of their students’ needs.

It’s not known exactly how many NTU faculty are stranded abroad and/or have been put on no-pay leave for an indeterminate period. The academics I spoke to know of other stranded colleagues, but didn't have a clear sense of the institution-wide impact. I was given an estimated number of faculty abroad, based on people talking to one another, but haven't been able to verify it myself. On 4 August, I sent the following questions to NTU’s corporate communications department:

  • I understand that a number of members of faculty are currently stuck overseas due to the travel restrictions and required approvals from the government before long-term pass holders can come back in. How many academics at NTU are currently in this situation?
  • While they remain abroad (even if it's involuntarily so), these lecturers/professors are not allowed to teach their classes remotely. I understand that this is the case even if these classes are actually conducted online due to the pandemic. Why are these academics not allowed to teach online classes remotely?
  • I also understand that only academics who have been granted compassionate leave are allowed to teach remotely. However, they will only be paid for the days that they teach. Could you explain the reasoning behind this approach to calculating and paying salaries?
  • What happens to the classes/courses that are being taught by academics who are unable to return to Singapore in time for the beginning of the semester? Are they being cancelled, or taken over by other academics?
  • What measures are in place to support students who might be affected by academics stranded outside Singapore at the moment?
  • What is NTU's position on members of staff, or even international students, travelling outside of Singapore during the pandemic? If staff or students end up being unable to travel back to Singapore before the semester begins, what is NTU's policy?
  • Can students who are abroad, who have valid justifications for having had to travel, attend classes and sit exams online if they cannot come back in time?

I also sent the following questions to the National University of Singapore on the same day, just to find out what the situation is on their end:

  • I'd like to ask what NUS' policy is regarding academics who might be in such a situation. Are there any NUS academics who are currently stranded abroad? If so, how many?
  • If lecturers are unable to return to Singapore in time for classes to begin, will they be allowed to teach remotely (especially if their classes are going to be online anyway)?
  • If they are not allowed to teach remotely, then what measures does NUS have to ensure that students can still take the classes that they've chosen?

I haven’t spoken to as many NUS academics as NTU ones. There are certainly NUS academics stuck abroad at the moment, but from what I understand, they’d not been made to sign undertakings like their counterparts at NTU, and things might be tackled on a more case-by-case basis. Either that, or they’ve not been granted permission to leave Singapore in the first place, unless they have a very compelling or urgent reason to do so — based on the conversations I’ve had with a few academics, the situation as NUS seems to vary.

I received a reply from NUS acknowledging my email and informing me that someone is looking into it, but I have not yet received a response to my questions. I did not get a reply from NTU. I will update this story if/when either university gets back to me.


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Kirsten Han

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.