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"Choosing between education and family": The international students' dilemma

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
7 min read

This story was directly emailed to Milo Peng Funders, who will never miss an issue of We, The Citizens. It's also freely accessible via the website.

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Last Friday, I published a story about Nanyang Technological University (NTU) faculty stranded abroad not being allowed to teach remotely. This was despite the fact that classes at NTU are “generally” being conducted online until 20 August. (And even after 20 August, classes with more than 50 people will still be held online.) Only academics who have been granted compassionate leave are allowed to teach remotely, but even so, they'll only be paid for the days they teach.

Since that story went out, I’ve heard from a number of NTU international students currently stuck overseas. Some went home due to family emergencies or bereavement, or other serious needs for emotional support and care; others because they were homesick for family they hadn’t seen in over a year. Like the foreign faculty members who teach them, they, too, need entry approval to return, under the Student Pass Holder Lane. They say they haven’t been able to get permission to come back to Singapore — despite applying for entry since June — and, as the academic year opens, are feeling increasingly stressed out and desperate. (Currently, student pass holders aren’t allowed to enter Singapore from countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Myanmar.)

A screencap from ICA's "Travel Health Control Measures" page for the Student Pass Holder Lane.

While stranded faculty aren’t allowed to teach remotely, there will also be no concession made for stranded international students once classes at NTU go back to being held in-person on 23 August. Multiple students told me that they’d asked for permission to attend classes remotely until they can get back into Singapore, but were told that it would be unfair to the international students who hadn't left the country, and that it is now too late to make online learning arrangements.

This appears to be the case even if their professors are actually willing to accommodate them. Two students separately told me that they’d contacted their professors directly and had at first got agreement from some of those professors to take online classes, only for the academics to later backpedal and say they have to check with the school.

“I think the school might have told [my professor] not to do this,” one student said. “After [hearing from my professor] I got a reply from the school saying that online learning is not an option for me after 23 August.”

The students, who are in their second year and above, say they found out that the university has allowed online learning for international freshmen who aren't able to enter Singapore, but not for them. Instead, they’ve been given deadlines by NTU to apply for a Leave of Absence, in line with the undertakings they were made to sign before leaving the country. While some have until later this month to decide and apply, others had to make up their mind this past weekend. When one asked why there is such differentiated treatment between them and the freshmen, they were told that they’d signed the undertaking and had chosen to travel despite advice.

If they apply for a Leave of Absence, their fees can be refunded, or deferred to the next semester. If they don’t apply, they tell me, they will lose their fees and might even run the risk of failing their classes (for example, if they are consistently marked absent from classes, or are unable to submit assignments or sit for exams). Either way, being stuck outside Singapore seems to mean that they’ll end up graduating later than the rest of their cohort; they are likely to end up at least one semester behind their peers. Considering that some modules might only be offered in particular semesters, taking a semester off could also have knock-on effects for their choice of courses or ability to take core classes.

Deciding whether or not to apply for Leave of Absence is a difficult decision, full of unknown variables. At the heart of it is the uncertainty about entry approval, which is granted by the Singapore government; like the faculty members I spoke to, the students have no idea when they’ll be able to get back into the country. Although the government announced on Friday that the Ministry of Manpower will open up entry approval applications again to fully vaccinated work pass holders in higher-risk countries, the students say they have received no information about whether the situation for student pass holders has similarly changed.

Without knowing when they can return to Singapore, the students say that whether or not to apply for a Leave of Absence becomes a “gamble”. They might end up taking an entire semester off only to realise that they can enter Singapore a few weeks later and could technically have caught up with their courses. But if they bet on getting back into the country soon and then that turns out not to be the case, then they could end up losing their fees for the semester — a loss of over $15,000 for some.

Like the stranded faculty, the students feel like they’re being punished for choosing to go home during the break. “We were asked to choose between our education and our families,” one said. “Nobody should be asked to make such a choice.”

The uncertainty is taking a toll on these students, adding to existing tension caused by the pandemic. “Our biggest problems are strict border measures and a university who would rather their students delay their studies rather than offer us support and alternative learning plans,” one told me.

“The most that they have done is send us emails asking us to ‘be mindful, meditate’ and reach out to (an already overbooked) university wellness centre for coping advice.”

I’ve been told that there are about 30 NTU students stuck in India who are in touch with one another. It’s not clear if they are all the international NTU students in India, or if there are more. There are international students stuck in other countries too, but at the moment I don’t have a sense of how many, or how spread out across the world they might be.

As with the previous story, this piece focuses on NTU because most of the people I’ve spoken to are from that university. It doesn’t mean that similar situations aren’t occurring in other universities in Singapore. However, the different colleges and universities have their own policies in reaction to Singapore's Covid-19 regulations. For instance, since the publication of my last story, I’ve been told that, while Yale-NUS has had some issues with obtaining visas for new hires, existing faculty and students who are stuck abroad are allowed to teach and study remotely.

While working on the last piece, I sent questions to both NTU and NUS. I haven’t received answers from either university. I sent further questions to both universities early yesterday morning.

These are the additional questions I sent to NTU:

  • How many international students at NTU are currently stuck abroad and unable to return to Singapore before the semester begins? How has NTU been helping them in their efforts to return to Singapore?
  • I understand that these students will not be granted permission to do online learning, and are instead asked to apply for a Leave of Absence. Why is this the case? Why will they not be allowed to take their classes online, if they have a valid reason for not being able to return to Singapore at this present moment?
  • If they fail to apply for a Leave of Absence by the deadline given to them, will the fees that they have paid for the semester be forfeit?
  • How does NTU provide care and support for the student body during this pandemic period? What infrastructure or systems are in place to help faculty and students with mental health and stressors that they may face?

The follow-up questions I sent to NUS:

  • Does NUS have international students who are currently unable to return to Singapore due to Covid-19 restrictions? If so, what measures does the university have to help or support them?
  • Are international students who are stranded abroad at the moment allowed to do online learning and take their classes remotely until they can re-enter Singapore?

I’ve also sent the following questions to the other publicly-funded autonomous universities (Singapore Management University, Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and Singapore University of Technology and Design), in the hopes of finding out about their policies:

  • Does your university have international faculty or students who are currently stranded overseas due to Covid-19 restrictions?
  • For faculty who are stuck abroad, does your university allow them to teach their classes remotely until they can return to Singapore?
  • For students who are stuck abroad, does your university allow them to have their classes online until they can return to Singapore?
  • What measures are in place to provide support for faculty and students in terms of teaching, learning, and mental health during this pandemic period?

Furthermore, I’ve sent questions to the Ministry of Education and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority — I’ve combined both sets of questions and produce them here:

  • If people are already holders of long-term visas that allow them to live in Singapore for an extended period, why do they still need to apply for entry approval to return to the country?
  • How does the government assess entry approval applications? Is there any effort to prioritise certain sectors or roles, such as for educators and students?
  • Does the announcement about accepting new entry approval applications from vaccinated work pass holders in higher risk countries also apply to student pass holders?
  • Has MOE issued any guidelines or policy directions to publicly-funded universities regarding how to deal with situations such as international faculty or students being unable to return to Singapore in time for the new academic year? Are there any best practices that MOE would advise that such tertiary institutions adopt?
  • With international faculty and students facing such difficulty gaining permission to return to Singapore for their work and their studies, how will this affect efforts to present Singapore as an attractive place for global talent to live, work, and study?

I haven’t received any responses so far, but will update this story if/when I do.


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Kirsten Han

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.