Singaporean uni students look for a way back Down Under amid Covid-19 pandemic

Australia's borders are currently closed to all but citizens, residents, their immediate family members and travellers from New Zealand.
Australia's borders are currently closed to all but citizens, residents, their immediate family members and travellers from New Zealand.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - While many Singaporean students studying overseas in countries like Britain or the United States have had the option to return to university despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, most of those at Australian institutions have not been afforded that luxury, due to prevailing travel laws.

Strict border control measures have left what may be thousands of Singaporean students enrolled at universities in Australia stranded here, although some studying courses like medicine that have large practical components have been allowed to return.

Australia's borders are currently closed to all but citizens, residents, their immediate family members and travellers from New Zealand.

These restrictions have been in place since March 20 last year, with minor adjustments in between.

Until the news of a possible travel bubble between the Republic and Australia broke on March 14, many students were stuck in limbo, unable to return but still enrolled in university.

Some, like Ms Nicolle Chew, a fifth-year medical student at Monash University, have recently been allowed to return for clinical placements.

The 24-year-old flew back to Australia in January after almost a year in Singapore, and is currently working in hospitals there. She will graduate at the end of this year.

"I'm glad to be able to come back and just finish my degree here before moving back to Singapore," she said. Her university is currently allowing fourth- and fifth-year medical students back to finish their studies.

Other than a few exceptions, however, most remain stuck in a state of uncertainty with no end in sight. This drove final-year commerce student Stacey Chiu to attempt to pressure the Australian government into action.

Ms Chiu, also a Monash University undergraduate, petitioned the Parliament of Australia to permit Singaporean students' entry into Australia to resume campus learning. The online petition received 1,090 signatures and was presented in Australia's Parliament.

She wrote: "Singapore has maintained a low number of Covid-19 cases, but our education remains hindered and compromised by harsh border restrictions.

"Despite our higher tuition fees, we are expected to continue with virtual classes when universities have opened for physical lessons. Online learning does not offer the same quality and experience as in-person classes, and we may be denied in-person internships while being allocated into classes at unreasonable hours."

Australia is a popular destination for higher education among Singaporean students.

Official figures showed that over the 2019-2020 academic year alone, 1,315 Singaporeans lodged student visa applications.

In comparison, there were about than 6,820 Singaporeans studying in Britain across all levels for the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Britain-based Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Student visa applications to Australia fell to 530 in the next year, but some believe that demand is still strong.

Mr Nick Lim, country manager at education consulting firm AUG Student Services, said that this the popularity of Australian universities is fed by supply and demand.

Citing the popularity of health related courses, Mr Lim said: "There are only two medical schools and one dental school in Singapore, which are just not enough to meet the demand among Singaporean students."

He added that the popularity of other courses like psychology was rising.

"Australia is still popular despite Covid-19 and the fact that people cannot physically fly there. People planning for the future and are applying with the hope that they can eventually go. Many are applying for the visa but starting school online," he added, saying that out of the hundreds of students applying to Australia which his company advises, over 90 per cent were still seeking to apply for a visa.