Needy students will get more financial support: NUS

UPDATED 4 Jun (NUS' response included)

Responding to  controversy over the affordability of one of its scholarship programmes, National University of Singapore (NUS) said on Tuesday it would provide Singaporean students from the lowest-income families “with significantly higher bursaries” following a recent comprehensive review of its financial aid schemes.

“Needy local students participating in the University Town Residential Programme (which includes USP), for instance, will be provided with proportionately higher financial support,” the University’s spokesperson told Yahoo! Singapore.

Those from families with very low per capita income will receive higher NUS Bursary amounts compared to the previous quantum of S$1,850, he added.

This comes after an NUS student under the school’s University Scholars’ Programme (USP) allegedly became the target of cyber-bullying after she questioned whether the USP has turned into a club for the elite.

In the article “Cyberbullying in NUS” published in online student newspaper The Kent Ridge Common (KRC) on Monday morning, writer Koh Choon Hwee said that Keira Chen, a USP student, has been called “stupid” and other names by her peers since writing articles in KRC about the honours programme.

Chen, whose parents reportedly earn less than S$2,000 a month to support their family of five, was first featured in KRC in Koh’s article “Will the USP turn into a Middle-Upper Socioeconomic Cluster?” on 9 October last year.

The USP is an interdisciplinary academic programme that offers able NUS undergraduates a wide range of extracurricular and overseas opportunities. In August, when the USP moved into NUS’ new educational hub University Town (UTown), a two-year compulsory residential component was introduced, which meant an additional S$11,060 accommodation fees.

Previously, USP students didn’t have to top up any amount – besides the standard NUS tuition fees – to enjoy the privileges of being part of the programme.

NUS’ spokesperson added that the same group of needy students who are participating in the UTown residential programme will receive enhanced bursary amounts ranging from $4,500 to $6,000 per student annually, depending on the student’s financial neediness.

These higher bursaries will help to cover a portion of the additional expenses incurred, which means that students from low-income households would still have to pay an additional minimum of S$5,060 once its financial aid plans kick in.

The university, however, emphasized that there are other financial aid schemes, such as loans, available to needy local students participating in the programme.

In articles in KRC she wrote after the feature on her, Chen, who enrolled into USP before the change in fees, highlighted her plight and called for a more robust financial aid scheme. On top of giving tuition twice a week, Chen also holds a part-time job in school.

In one of her KRC posts last year, originally titled “Meritocracy? Money-talk-cracy!” before toning it down to “USP@UTown” after getting feedback, Chen spoke of her difficulties as a “B student” in university.

“I’ve spent, since Day 1, Year 1, Sem 1, in the library till 10pm (or on days I’m not there, I’m giving tuition), and I’m a B student,” she shared.

Chen added that at times, she “has to read everything 3 times before I really understand it (and I take 3.5hours to read compared to my friends who does it in 2 hours)”.

According to Koh’s report in KRC, to this, a USP student commented on the wall of a private Facebook group – restricted to USP students only – that “this poor girl isn’t the brightest crayon in the box” and is “begging to be parodied”.

Another, as quoted by the student paper, said even more bluntly, “okay keira chen we get it. YOU ARE VEH STUPID AND YOU SEEM SO PROUD OF IT”, before adding that he found it “simply shocking” that Chen is part of the honours programme.

Yahoo! Singapore, however, was told by a few NUS students that there was also a group of students who empathised with Chen and spoke up to defend her.

According to KRC, one person said in the Facebook group that she “doesn’t think (Chen’s article)’s in any way slamming USP – it’s just someone raising her authentic and very legitimate concerns about a university programme in a university space for publication.”

Koh, who used to be part of the USP, said she remained upset as she saw “this not (as) a case of cyberbullying by anonymous trolls on the internet, but by your peers who are living in close proximity with you… this is, after all, a residential college”.

“Our whole learning and living environment suddenly turned hostile; Keira was very affected as she bore the brunt of the personal attacks and I was very worried for her,” Koh wrote.

She also emphasised that the comments she featured in her article were “only a very small sample”.

Koh then expressed disappointment that despite her several attempts to seek from USP leaders counseling help for Chen, who was showing more signs of distress as the comments got worse, no one, the KRC writer claimed, stepped forward to offer her any form of support.

What made it worse was finding out that “apart from the largely online negative reactions from USP students… USP staff also engaged in perpetuating negative stereotypes about us”, Koh wrote.

Koh also further said that the USP director told her he didn’t like it that some of the comments were “too personal”.

“But they’re being made in a private student space, and we cannot intervene unless there’s something illegal or in breach of a rule, I’m afraid,” he was quoted by Koh as saying.

USP students, staff respond

When contacted by Yahoo! Singapore, 23-year-old USP student Augustin Chiam offered another side to Koh’s story, which he claimed was “one-sided”.

“There were definitely people who supported Keira,” said the political science student. “Cyber bullying is wrong but every family has its black sheep. Don't cast the blame on the entire community just because of the actions of the few people.”

“The (Facebook) group has generations of USP people,” Chiam added. “Out of all the comments, (Koh) just picked out a few to highlight.”

Echoing Chiam’s sentiment, USP student Craig D’Souza explained that “there were students who participated in the ensuing discussion who attempted to defuse the situation by warning their peers to not overstep the boundary between humour and maliciousness".

“The real issue that provoked such (unnecessary) comments was probably (because) the articles by Keira and Choon Hwee were perceived by a segment of the USP community as being unfairly accusing the USP of being ignorant of the plight of its needy students,” the 24-year-old undergraduate explained.

He added, “What precipitated out of the episode was actually some concrete action and discourse within the USP student leadership and the administration on how to address the problems and issues that were covered in the article.”

Responding to Yahoo! Singapore’s queries on Tuesday, an NUS spokesperson said the university is “disappointed with the comments that some students had made" but emphasised that the postings took place in a “private Facebook group that has no official standing in NUS or the USP”.

“We hope, and encourage, that our students will act respectfully at all times – inside and outside the university,” he continued.

The spokesperson added that the USP director had, when the incident occurred, written to all students on the Facebook page, urging them to practise responsible behaviour in their interactions within the group.

“NUS is committed to a merit-based, needs-blind admission policy, and ensures that no deserving student is denied the opportunity of an NUS education because of financial difficulties,” he said.