Staying in Malaysia to save on rent: Exchange students return to NUS, but some face housing crunch

A spokesman for NUS said the numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels after Covid-19 travel curbs were eased. PHOTO: ST FILE
National University of Singapore (NUS) to admit more poly students with entrepreneurial slant, launch self-designed modules. The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – To save money on rent after he could not get a hostel room at the National University of Singapore (NUS), foreign exchange student Antonio Lobeck chose to miss classes and stayed in Malaysia for 12 days.

Mr Lobeck, an international management student at Britain’s Warwick University, was paying $1,100 a month for a rental room in Singapore that a friend helped him find. But it busted his budget so he went to Malaysia to cut back on expenses.

Previously, he was sharing a hostel room in Chinatown with nine others after failing to get a room on campus.

Accommodation at NUS costs between $480 and $850 a month.

Mr Lobeck said he plans to move back into a hostel only for the last two weeks of the term in November.

The 22-year-old is among some foreign students who have grappled with housing-related woes as students from abroad return in force for short stints at NUS.

Fifteen of these students, who came from countries such as Spain, the United States and Britain for programmes at NUS lasting up to nearly a year, said a messy application process, limited hall rooms and poor communication by the university created a stressful situation that left them paying more than they had budgeted for.

In response to queries, an NUS spokesman said the foreign exchange student numbers are back at pre-pandemic levels after Covid-19 travel curbs were eased, but did not give a figure. The NUS website states that the university welcomes more than 2,300 such students every year.

“While we have allocated a proportion of on-campus hostel rooms for inbound exchange students, hostel capacity on NUS campuses is limited,” she said.

She did not provide details on how many rooms on campus were set aside for them. 

NUS’ website states that its residences at UTown in Kent Ridge can house up to 1,700 students. Figures from other residences such as Prince George’s Park Residences are not published on the website. 

The spokesman added that NUS had informed exchange students in advance that on-campus accommodation is not guaranteed.

She said: “They are advised to factor in the cost of off-campus accommodation in Singapore, and strongly encouraged to secure accommodation for the duration of their exchange before leaving their home countries.”

This warning is also published on some documents on the NUS webpage on student exchanges. 

However, some students said they received no direct communication on the housing situation, either from NUS or their home universities, and were also asked to apply for housing in the hostels in their application process to NUS, which led them to believe that it would be available.

Mr Lobeck said NUS informed him that he was not allocated a hostel room only a month before his course started.

“The accommodation booking system first told me that I was not an authorised user when I wanted to see the results. Then I had to talk to the support team for three days to figure it out, until it showed me a rejection,” he said.

The situation has been made worse by a supply crunch in Singapore’s rental market and the difficulty of getting a lease of less than a year – which the students require. 

Ms Christine Sun, senior vice-president of research and analytics at real estate consultancy OrangeTee & Tie, said the strong rental market means most landlords prefer leases spanning at least one or two years. Most exchange students are on programmes lasting less than a year. 

Rental prices have also gone up between 20 per cent and 40 per cent, said Ms Sun. 

She said: “For those who still want shorter leases under one year, some landlords may ask for very high prices. 

“They may not be able to secure a unit at short notice, given the high demand now.” 

Spanish exchange student Estelle Orient, 22, rented a room in a flat in Clementi and was beset with problems soon after. She left the flat late at night on Sept 12 in a state of panic after her landlord appeared drunk and behaved in an erratic manner. 

She approached a friend staying at an NUS dormitory, who agreed to let her bunk in. But when NUS staff got wind of this, they told her to leave and suggested that she rent a hotel room or camp overnight in a public area on campus, she said.

If she refused, she would risk having demerit points given to her friend, an NUS official was heard as saying in a recording made by her friend and obtained by The Straits Times.

She left campus with the friend and they both stayed with the friend’s uncle for the night. She appealed to NUS for housing the following day and was allocated a room in UTown that evening. Before this, she had submitted an appeal but was unsuccessful.

Ms Orient, an architecture master’s student at UIC Barcelona, said she applied to NUS to do an exchange programme, expecting a vibrant campus experience at one of Asia’s top universities. 

Before she got her room in UTown, she had also stayed in a flat in Stevens Road in Bukit Timah, which is about an hour away from NUS.

Ms Orient said: “I have had to move twice already and the places have been far away from NUS, expensive and uncomfortable.

“It’s been one of the most stressful periods of my life. I’m not coming back for the next semester after the Christmas break.”

Her exchange programme was meant to last 10 months, until May 2023.

Other foreign exchange students who spoke to ST said it has been difficult contending with the private housing market as they are not familiar with local culture. Some also said they had friends who lost their rental deposits.

Those who managed to get a room on campus also said the exercise was a messy and confusing one.

Cambridge University student Harry Vellios, 20, said he had to get a separate application for modules at NUS before the university would allow him to apply for housing, which meant he missed the first round of housing applications. 

As a result, he got a place to stay only three weeks before flying out of Britain to Singapore.

Mr Vellios, an engineering student, said: “When you are flying from the other side of the world to an entirely new place, you want to know that you have a place to stay.”

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