Rising costs strain Singapore’s university students

Fong Wei Li

By day, a third-year economics major who wants to be known only as Lynn attends classes at the National University of Singapore, usually clad in a simple getup of jeans and a tank top.

But at night, while most other undergraduates are asleep, Lynn trades her casual wear for a wardrobe of resplendent dresses and works as a social escort, a job scorned and labeled distasteful by most. From 8 p.m. to about 4 a.m. she entertains male clients by attending functions with them, indulging them in a drink and chat, or by providing what she called “discreet services.”

“It’s not exactly the most glamorous of jobs,” Lynn said. “I’m keeping it from my parents and most friends. But what to do? I have to eat my meals and pay my bills.”

Lynn belongs to a handful of varsity students taking on part-time jobs to finance their tuition fees and daily expenses. These students usually come from lower-income families with parents who are unable to foot the steep bills tagged to a tertiary education. It is unclear how many such students there are, but like Lynn, some are holding jobs that involve long hours while others engage in menial labor. Some of these students say their grades have suffered from having to balance both work and studies.

Lynn’s father, a truck driver, took a pay cut earlier in January and makes barely enough to sustain the household’s day-to-day expenses, let alone finance Lynn’s university education. To see herself through her degree, she has been juggling her studies with part-time jobs since she enrolled at NUS.

According to the NUS Office of Admission’s Web site, the estimated monthly living expenses for undergraduates range from $580 to $1,000. This includes costs for transport, food, course materials and personal expenses. Tuition fees for most undergraduate degree courses are currently pegged at $6,360 per year, a $250 increase from last year. Broken down on a per-month basis, tuition fees add $530 to a student’s monthly expenses. Including living expenses, an undergraduate requires between $1,110 and $1,530 a month.

Although NUS offers loans to students assessed as needy, the schemes cover only up to 90 percent of tuition fees and provide little or no relief on the side of living expenses. On the other hand, rising food and transport costs are jacking up the cost of living. “I used to spend about $450 a month, give or take,” said Jamie Ong, a second-year mathematics major. “Now, all the price increases have brought it up to about a little less than $550.”

Ong’s father was retrenched earlier in May, and her mother earns a nominal income as a dishwasher. Both parents refuse to fund her university education because they feel it is a waste of time and money. To make ends meet, Ong takes on an evening job at the Night Safari as a tram guide, working from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. on weekends and alternate weekdays. She is paid $8 an hour and earns about $900 a month, half of which goes to her family. “On weekdays, I rush off from school to Night Safari and work till midnight,” Ong said. “It’s darn tiring and I feel like I can’t get any schoolwork done on time.”

Third-year psychology major Benjamin Kuah works part time as a supermarket assistant to finance his varsity life. His job at the supermarket is physically tiring because it requires him to carry and move heavy boxes daily during restocking. Kuah’s father was diagnosed with schizophrenia years ago and has since been unable to work. His mother supports the family with her job as a school cleaner. Kuah attributed the plight of needy students, who work part time, to inadequate financial support. “I’m on the assistance scheme and they gave me a loan for most of my tuition fees but there’s no help with my living expenses,” Kuah said. “I’m not a big spender but I still need to eat, travel and pay for miscellaneous stuff. That’s the hard part.”

Eunice Foo, an officer with the NUS Office of Admissions, said the university’s assistance schemes assess each applicant and provide aid based on individual needs and circumstances. She said to help students cope with living expenses, the university’s career center facilitates work-study arrangements by maintaining a comprehensive job bank.

Kuah said this does not solve his problem of having to plough long hours and late nights into his supermarket job just to make ends meet. He added that his grades have suffered since he took up the job one year ago. “When I was in year one, my CAP (cumulative average point) score was above four,” Kuah said. “Now it’s below 3.5.” Ong, who works at the Night Safari, said her grades have also worsened noticeably. “I skip class so often because I’m so tired I can’t wake up in time,” she said. “If I manage to go for class, I end up falling asleep.”

Lynn, who works as a social escort, said the nature of her job leaves her no time for schoolwork. “I usually can’t meet deadlines and sometimes I flunk modules,” she said. “But it’s better than not being able to afford my degree and then having to sell myself for the rest of my life.”