As construction of the first two residential colleges enters its final stages, university Provost Tan Eng Chye has responded to students’ concern about the costs of staying at the colleges and its impact on the rest of the student population.
Student representatives like National University of Singapore Students’ Union President Christopher Cheong have expressed concern that the residential colleges could lead to a potential segregation of students.
University town will start operations in August with two colleges: Cinnamon College which will house students from the University Scholars Programme and Tembusu College. Both colleges will house 600 students each.
During the NUS open house on 12 and 13 March, the university will open up show flats to the public for the first time as the colleges prepare for their first intake of students.
University Provost Tan Eng Chye is hoping that the residential colleges will form learning communities that will help develop “new pedagogical methods and learning habits” that will benefit the entire university.
However, Tan noted that interest in the residential colleges, particularly Tembusu College, has not been as forthcoming as the university hoped.
“I think that there is interest amongst the students, but this is not enough. I wish I could have more students,” Tan said.
Tan said that the concept of residential colleges will take some time to take off in NUS and Singapore in general.
Tan said that this was mainly due to the general tendency of Singaporean and NUS students to stick to tried-and-tested methods and a reluctance to try new possibilities without some guarantee of success.
Thus Tan acknowledged that the university would have to work hard to “convince them that this is something we are trying to do to fully develop our students.”
Another possible obstacle to staying in the residential colleges is cost, the Provost acknowledged.
Eddie Choo, a third-year USP and sociology student also raised similar concerns.
“Costs remain an issue, and a big one at that. Already the costs of accommodation at $3,500 is already something difficult to accept; the need to fork out another $1,500 or so for the meal plan is another source of concern,” Choo said.
Tan said that students need to differentiate between two kinds of costs: academic and costs for accommodation, and stressed that the school is subsidising the increase in academic costs.
“Students must separate the academic costs and meal plans. We need to charge higher rent because basically we cannot be sponsoring the student’s rent for the student’s accommodation.”
“But the school is not charging the students for the increase in academic costs at all,” Tan said.
Tan also stressed that the administration has been working together with student representatives to ensure that the meal plans are not over-priced and the students will get a fair deal.
NUSSU president Christopher Cheong also said that he has been actively seeking the best deal for the students at university town.
“I sit on an equal level with the administrators on the food tendering board and we have personally tested everything. From food tasting to the time it takes to travel to Kent Ridge from university town,” Cheong said.
Tan said that the university was willing to subsidise the increase in costs because it believed that a change in pedagogical methods is essential for students to adapt to a new global environment.
“What we are trying to impress on our students is that the world is going to change. The world is already changing. And the world has to change and how can we actually prepare for our students for a world that is changing?
“I think we are already preparing our students well enough but I can’t say for sure that ten, twenty years down the road our graduates will be able to cope with the very quick changes in the world. That’s always our worry,” Tan said.
In order to cope with such changes, Tan said that three things are essential: ability to cope with diversity in terms of nationalities and cultures, disciplines through an inter-disciplinary approach and personalities.
Tan also said that it is these attributes that the administration will look out for when choosing potential students for the residential colleges.
The entire idea of a selection process for the residential colleges however, has been questioned by NUSSU president Christopher Cheong, who thinks that this hampers the ability of university town to adequately address the housing shortage at Kent Ridge campus.
As Cheong noted, the Provost claimed that university town would “alleviate the housing problem at Kent Ridge.”
However, given that the residential colleges are seeking particular types of students, this necessitates a selection process which Cheong thinks will inevitably exclude a segment of the student population.
“If the school interviews people to decide who gets into the residential colleges, how is that not gonna be elitist?” Cheong said.
Provost Tan Eng Chye acknowledged that the university will have to be selective, but stressed that everyone has an equal chance to be part of the residential colleges.
“We are looking for certain types of students at the residential colleges, but all students will compete with other students on an equal basis through the selection process to get into the residential colleges,” Tan said.
Tan also responded to Cheong’s concern that university town might result in an “unhealthy segregation of students”, emphasising that students in the residential college will only take five modules in the residential colleges.
“If you look at the U-Town, students just need to do five modules at the residential college. They spend 85 percent of their time outside the residential college. So I am not taking the students away from their faculties away at all,” Tan said.
Tan also expressed hopes that rather than segregating students from their own faculties, the students and teaching staff at the residential colleges will bring the new pedagogies and classroom skills from the colleges to their own faculties.
“What I hope is what they have gone through for their five modules will impact the rest of the modules that they sit in.
Likewise I hope that the professors that teach at these residential colleges will take these new pedagogies and implement them back at their own faculties.
“This is usually the best way to try to have a change. Because we are a large university and wholesale changes will be difficult. But I hope the 5,000 students in university town in four years of 25 percent f the students can spread the word to another 25 percent and so on,” Tan said.
Tan also emphasised that the facilities at university town will be open to all NUS students and staff.
In 2013 when university town is fully developed, it will have four residential colleges and a graduate residence, housing a total of 2,400 undergraduates and 1,700 post-graduate students.
Besides the colleges, university town will also have various facilities including the new education resource centre, Edusports, the new NUS centre for the arts and the campus for research excellence and technological expertise.
These new facilities have not come cheap. Each residential college is expected to cost around “$60 to $70 million to build” according to The Straits Times.
The increase in costs has been largely due to inflation resulting in huge increases in building and fuel costs.
The university has turned to donors in order to fund the project, and it received $15 million from Ngee Ann Kongsi in 2010.
However, as Tan explained, these donations have been insufficient, and the university has dipped into its reserves to make up the shortfall.
“These donations are still not enough. So we have to dig into the returns from our investments. We have an endowment fund which receives returns every year we have used those returns to support U-Town,” Tan said.