Coronavirus: Universities suspend exchange programmes to South Korea, advise students there to come back

People wearing face masks take a photo next to a "no tourists" sign at the main entrance of a university in Seoul on Feb 4, 2020.
People wearing face masks take a photo next to a "no tourists" sign at the main entrance of a university in Seoul on Feb 4, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Nanyang Technological University (NTU) student Noel was about to leave for the airport to catch a 1am flight to Seoul for a four-month exchange programme when she received an e-mail saying the programme has been suspended.

The e-mail, from NTU's Office of Global Education and Mobility that handles such programmes, was sent at about 9.50pm on Sunday (Feb 25) and seen by The Straits Times.

It also advised its students who were already in South Korea to "come back to Singapore as soon as possible".

The National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have also suspended exchange programmes to South Korea.

The NTU student, who wanted to be identified only as Noel, and her friends who were also supposed to be on the programme, had to cancel their flights at the last minute late on Sunday night.

She estimated that a total of 80 students from NTU, across faculties, were slated to travel to South Korea on exchange programmes.

In response to queries, an NTU spokesman confirmed that the university was suspending all semester exchanges to South Korea until further notice.

This is in view of the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation in South Korea, and in line with the Ministry of Health's advisory for travellers to avoid non-essential travel to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, and to exercise caution when travelling to the rest of South Korea, he said.

On Tuesday, Singapore announced that it will bar visitors from Cheongdo and Daegu, as the number of coronavirus cases in these areas continues to climb.

Returning Singapore citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders with a travel history to Cheongdo and Daegu within the last 14 days will be issued a Stay-Home Notice which prohibits them from leaving their homes for 14 days after they return.

South Korea has the most coronavirus cases outside China, with 10 deaths and 977 cases as of Tuesday afternoon.

The NTU spokesman added: "Several of our partner universities in South Korea have informed us that they would like to defer all their incoming exchanges due to the Covid-19 developments in their country.

"NTU will similarly work with our partner universities in South Korea to defer all outbound student exchanges until further notice."

Alternative options for affected students include pursuing credit-bearing internships or taking up courses during the May to August vacation period.

These students may also apply for overseas exchanges or internships in the next or subsequent semesters.

 
 

Noel told ST her exchange coordinator has given her options such as taking a leave of absence for the rest of the semester and delaying graduation, or joining this semester midway through in NTU.

She has to decide by 8am on Wednesday, she said.

She said NTU could have given affected students better options, such as letting them take certain modules as pass/fail modules in NTU, as is usually the case for students on exchange in other universities.

Noel said she was disappointed at missing out on the exchange programme.

"I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Going somewhere on a holiday is different from experiencing campus life and culture as a student in that country, and it's a shame that this is a lost chance."

NTU's spokesman said the university is also looking into the matter of insurance claims, and will advise students on their claims where applicable.

As for summer exchange programmes, which usually take place from June or July, NTU said there is “no decision to cancel summer studies to South Korea now”.

In a separate e-mail to students seen by ST, NTU’s Office of Global Education and Mobility said: “Depending on how the situation evolves, it may be possible that the programme may be cancelled... we would advise you to delay the purchase of your air tickets and booking of accommodation until further notification from our office in early April.”

Over at NUS, a spokesman said the university is contacting affected students to provide assistance and support.

 
 

Arrangements will be made for students who are in South Korea to return to Singapore as soon as possible, he added.

Alternative arrangements for affected students are being explored, such as helping them obtain local internships.

"Students may also apply for a leave of absence for this semester and the university will assist them to secure modules in the summer semester without incurring additional tuition fees."

At SMU, its spokesman said the university would continue to work with its partner universities in South Korea and make alternative arrangements for affected students, taking into account their preferences and requirements.

"The safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff remain the university's top priority, and we will provide the best possible support to them."

SUTD said it will cancel its overseas summer programmes to South Korea originally slated from May to August this year. However, as these programmes are not credit-bearing, it will not affect the students’ graduation, said a spokesman.