Expanding horizons close to home
As Singapore opens up its corridors of learning to more and more foreign students, Renuka Sadanandan takes us on a tour of what’s on offer in this hi-tech Asian hub of education
130,000 foreign students by 2012 up from 60,000 in 2005.
This is the ambitious target set by the Singapore government as it presses ahead with its plans to woo more foreign students to its shores and make Singapore, the Asian hub for education.

The move has, no doubt, been bolstered by a recent (November 2004) survey done by the Times of London in its Higher Education Supplement which placed two of Singapore's premier universities, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in its top 200 list of world universities. NUS was ranked 18th and NTU 50th. Singapore has three national universities, The Singapore Management University having opened in 2000.

Our first stop then, has to be NUS, the nation's biggest campus, which has on roll 32,000 students and a teaching faculty numbering 3,000. Now in its centenary year with many celebrations planned to begin shortly, NUS which had its beginnings as a medical school prides itself on being a 'global university'.

"We take in 6,000 students a year and about 20 percent of our places are reserved for international students. There are students from 40 different countries, so there's a good mix," says Sin Chew Chua, Senior Admissions Officer of NUS. "Of course, the Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Indians are always playing cricket," he adds with a smile.

There is no quota as such for Sri Lankan students but entry depends primarily on their results. NUS accepts the London A'Ls and local A'Ls, the latter with SAT 1 and SAT 2 for admission to its undergraduate courses. Engineering, Computing and Business are the most highly sought after among the Sri Lankans, but there are also students in most of NUS's 11 faculties that run the entire gamut from Medicine, Dentistry, Law, Business, Arts and even Music at its recently established Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

"Actually we are one of the few universities in the world where international students pay almost the same as local students (Singaporeans only enjoy a 5 percent discount)," says Ben-Lin Kelly Koh, another Senior Admissions Officer of NUS. All students at public institutions are entitled to the tuition grant offered by the Singaporean Ministry of Education that gives them upto 80 % of their course fee in a loan, which comes with a three-year work period in Singapore or with a Singapore-registered company overseas. For foreign medical students, however, the bond is six years with the Singapore Ministry of Health. Incidentally, one Sri Lankan student was among the 240 who gained admission to NUS's Medical Faculty last year.

The subsidised course fee for most faculties for international students is approximately S$ 6,200 a year (medicine and dentistry approx S$ 17,800). Students would then of course have to meet their living costs. Financing themselves through outside jobs is limited, however, as students are only allowed to work a maximum of 16 hours a week.

Employment in Singapore
So what are the chances of finding employment after graduation in Singapore? "NUS has an annual career fair where students can check out opportunities," explains Mr. Chua. Students from certain faculties also go through internship programmes and so the top students are often grabbed by the firms. With more than 6,000 multinational firms in Singapore, the chances of securing employment are reasonably good, he feels. Ministry of Education statistics reveal that 80 percent of students secured jobs within three months of graduating.

Does the influx of bright foreign students take away places that would otherwise go to Singaporeans? "We make sure Singapore students are not displaced," says R. Rajaram, NUS's Deputy Director, Office of Admissions. "The motivation is not revenue. We take in students when we are convinced we have provided sufficiently for local students. Also we go for top-bracket foreign students who have a genuine potential to contribute. There is a greater benefit in studying in a university that gives you this diversity..that's something we emphasise."

NUS is in partnership with many internationally renowned universities and has several programmes that offer undergraduates a chance to experience a slice of campus life abroad. Medical students have the option of a self-financed elective posting at Johns Hopkins University while engineering students have the chance of applying for the NUS-Georgia 10-week Tech Special programme. Under its Overseas Colleges Programme, students get to intern at a high-tech company while continuing their studies. NUS's three Overseas Colleges are at Silicon Valley, Philadelphia and Shanghai. Its Student Exchange Programme also facilitates exchanges with undergrads in UK, USA, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Australia etc.

What is life like on NUS for the Sri Lankan students there? Highly competitive and performance-driven, say a group of second-years while agreeing that the opportunities for advancement are many. Says Kizher Buhary, a past student of Alethea International who's studying Bio-Engineering, "I've learnt so much working as a research assistant which I just would not have with a normal curriculum. It's a really good deal”.

Shabbir Mustafa, from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, who is on the University Scholars Programme says the system of meritocracy is what appeals most to him. "It's not your father's bank account that determines if you go to NUS. If you work hard enough, you're in," he says.

"At times, we may have inadvertently given the message that we are a little too difficult to get in but I would urge Sri Lankan students who think they are good to apply," says Deputy Director Rajaram. "We are a rigorous and demanding university. But the promise that we would like to give is that at the end of the four years, the hard work would be worth it."

Set in an immaculately landscaped garden atmosphere, The Nanyang Technological University in Jurong, some 25 km from the city centre, was originally set up as a private institution, the Nanyang University. Funded by entrepreneurs, trishaw drivers and the common people, its impressive 200-hectare campus was designed on a masterplan drawn up by renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange.

In the 1980s, the university changed focus and became the nation's leading engineering school, gearing to produce the engineers needed to drive Singapore's burgeoning manufacturing economy. The campus now also houses Singapore's National Institute of Education which trains the nation's budding teachers.

With three new schools opened to broadbase NTU from its engineering focus, NTU is also looking to increase its student intake from its current 17,500 to 23,500. The setting up of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and the School of Art, Design and Media are all part of the masterplan to see NTU on its path to becoming the country's second 'comprehensive university' after NUS.

NTU has a strong research base with five schools under the College of Engineering, i.e: the Schools of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Computer Engineering, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Materials Engineering, Mechanical and Production Engineering. Other schools include the School of Biological Sciences, School of Communications and Information and the Nanyang Business School, the latter accredited by the European Foundation for Management Development.

NTU's MBA is also highly regarded and this view is endorsed by a Sri Lankan public sector official now doing his MBA on the Nanyang Fellows Programme for executives with over 10 years work experience. N.H.M. Chitrananda of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service has been to the Olympic Village in Greece as part of his business study mission to see how a global event is organized. Chitrananda also has six-weeks at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- a NTU partner organisation) at the end of his course and is enthusiastic about putting into practice the knowledge gained when he returns to Sri Lanka.

NTU students also have the benefit of the university's impressive line-up of linkages with foreign universities, such as the Singapore-MIT Alliance, Singapore-Stanford Partnership, Cornell-Nanyang Institute of Hospitality Management, and the Singapore - University of Washington Alliance in Bioengineering. NTU's Global Immersion Programme launched in July 2004 also gives its students a chance to spend six-months in the Peking University, Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiaotong University in China and at the University of Washington and Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.

International graduate students need to have good TOEFL and GRE scores for masters and Ph.D programmes. "Admission criteria are rather high. Typically we're looking at those with first class honours, because our expectations too are high," says Sri Lankan professor, Dr. Thambipillai Srikanthan, Director of NTU's Centre for High Performance Embedded Systems who's been at NTU for all of 13 years having come to Singapore after working in the UK and liked it so much he stayed on.

"We have very good facilities here. International students get hands-on experience, theoretical and practical which they may not be able to obtain elsewhere," says Arjuna P. Balasuriya, Asst. Professor at Nanyang's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, whose speciality is robotics. He is keen to set up some kind of agreement with universities in Sri Lanka to have Lankan students coming in to NTU.

"One good thing for students is that we have a mandatory six-month industrial attachment," adds Prof. Srikanthan explaining that this on-site exposure, given that Singapore is flooded with high-tech industries, can be very valuable indeed. "This can be useful when choosing their final-year projects and here again, we tend to have projects proposed by industry." Students at NTU's Business School too have a work attachment

NTU also has an international faculty- Australians, Canadians, Europeans, so "there is an international relevance to what we do," adds Prof. Srikanthan. "And the quality of teaching apart, Singapore is also a very safe place, especially when you consider female students.”

When Singapore unveiled its durian-domed Esplanade, a S$ 600 million arts centre, it signalled the island nation's desire and commitment to step onto the world stage. Playing a key role in this thrust are institutions like the Nanyang College of Fine Arts and the LASALLE SIA College of the Arts, the latter in the process of constructing its futuristic new city campus.

LASALLE, was accredited with the Open University of UK in March 2004 and offers a wide range of degrees from disciplines such as design, fine arts and performing arts catering at present to some 1,500 students. Their aim is holistic learning. "Because we're a specialised institution, the student is really immersed in the experience and also has the opportunity to collaborate with students from the other disciplines," says Avis Fontaine, LASALLE's Pro-Vice President, Operational. Though functioning autonomously, students at LASALLE can avail themselves of the tuition grants, financial loans and need-based awards offered by the Ministry of Education.

Creativity is the main criteria LASALLE is looking for, says Ms. Fontaine and applicants are required to present a portfolio of their work or audition to gain admission.

Sri Lankan Janaka Jayawardena studying Product Design at LASALLE finds the costs of living in Singapore compare favourably with other countries like the US and UK. "I generally manage with about S$ 500-600 a month, though when I have had project materials to purchase it has been higher," he says.

With university entrance requiring high academic results, the Polytechnics offering three-year diploma programmes are for Singaporeans a preferred pathway in tertiary education, with many students choosing this option soon after their O'Ls. With Schools for Applied Science, Business, Information Technology, Engineering and Design, offering 31 full-time courses, the Temasek Polytechnic, one of Singapore's leading Polys has a picturesque setting on the banks of the Bedok reservoir. The three-year diploma courses give students a head-start in the employment stakes for employers generally view the poly graduates as ideally equipped for work.

Says Sally Chew, Temasek's International Relations Director, "Our real mission is to prepare our students for the world of work. And so the DNA of our staff is very relevant industry experience and close industry ties."

A minimum three months internship is part of their diploma and the problem-based learning approach equips them with practical skills valued by employers, so Temasek students often have offers even before they graduate, says Ms. Chew. Temasek has links with some 200 international universities in different fields in the UK, US and New Zealand.

With around 10 percent of seats being reserved for foreign students, Temasek's tiny contingent of Sri Lankan students are enthusiastic about their courses. "We have hands-on experience and the opportunities to do research," says student leader Aincaran Kangasabai, 21, who's doing a diploma in electronic engineering.

Kanagasabai, an old boy of St. John's College, Jaffna feels that the opportunity to learn in Singapore's technologically advanced environment is a big advantage.

Practical learning is a Temasek focus and on a tour of the campus, we peep into the restaurant where students following a hospitality course are manning the floor. Elsewhere on campus is a travel agency where students learn by experience, design a tour, market it themselves and work at weekend travel fairs. The Hospitality and Tourism Management Course introduced just last September by Temasek's Business School gives students the chance to work at the Tourism Academy in Sentosa, Singapore's best-known resort.

In the final analysis, there are many reasons why Singapore presents an attractive option to students. While its high educational standards and affordable costs would indeed be pivotal factors, other reasons like its proximity to home, and its safe and cosmopolitan yet Asian society make it a happy alternative to the West.

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