By Imran Shah
When USP was asked to move into Cinnamon College at University Town in 2010 (Of course, I’m skipping through the short stint at Prince George Park Residences), numerous concerns were raised by both the students and the faculty. Many articles have been written on the issue of moving, primarily with regard to the cost of living in UTown, and how that might change the demographics of USP; one which gives a pretty good summary on the demographic concerns and the relevance of this issue to NUS was written for the Kent Ridge Commons (Will the USP turn into a Middle-Upper Socioeconomic Cluster? by Koh Choon Hwee, October 2011).
Demographic reasons aside, space was another point of contention. USP students used to hang around a huge space at ‘block ADM’ (near CLB, and almost four times the size of our current Chatterbox). Alums speak fondly of the raucous chatter in that Chatterbox, people just chilling and even a wall being pulled down, for which the MC was grilled. What a magical place it must have been. Of course, these alums, often afflicted by the Old-is-Gold syndrome, reminisce the old Chatterbox days while lamenting how quiet the new Chatterbox is. To which the response is that chatter happens also throughout the spaces around the building (floor lounges and in the dining hall) rather than concentrated in one place, as in the old Chatterbox.
Since then, USP has eased into its place in University Town, in the midst of the residential colleges, and recently, Yale-NUS College. Residential life (mainly the spaces and food) has since become an important aspect of developing the ‘scholar’ in USP students. What more with the community of intellectuals that USP students enjoy being part of. With that, the demand to live in college has increased to a point that it (finally) exceeds supply. We are now fumbling and debating on how to decide who gets to stay.
Deciding who gets to stay is an extremely delicate issue, as you would have observed if you came for the TOHO town hall on 24th April 2018. Should students who live further from NUS be prioritised (a reverse of the 1km-radius preference from primary school balloting)? Should international students be prioritised, considering that they need campus accommodation? How about those who contribute actively to the community in the form of organisation or even participation? Oh dear, will we go down the path of Residential Halls?
Incentivising students who contribute actively to the student community does sound like a good idea. However, does it mean that students who were active this year will continue to be active next year? And wouldn’t letting ‘active’ students stay in college result in more USP events which cater less towards non-residents? Furthermore, how do we decide what counts as ‘active’? Does it have to be organising an event – which an old friend, who does a lot of this himself, said is ridiculously over-hyped? Or is participation enough? How do we involve interest groups? Documentation will have to be done – and, boy, paperwork is a high-enough barrier to organise activities as it is. Once the system is all set up, we’ll have the problem of students attending and organising activities to rake up points. Does it sound bad enough to you? Clearly, I’m not a proponent for this points-system. I say find another way to incentivise contribution to student life.
The concern of international students is a serious one. If not given a place on NUS campus, international students (not exchangers, but international full-time NUS students) have to pay sky-high rentals outside. However, the solution shouldn’t be that international students are given priority housing. That wouldn’t be fair, neither would it be healthy for college demographics. International students should get accommodation on campus, but it need not be in Cinnamon College. The USP administration should ensure this. One major challenge is that, as I understand it from international students, USP’s residence acceptance is released way after the application window for other campus accommodations are closed. A mechanism should be implemented which allows international USP students to be able to apply for both USP housing and NUS housing. Again, I emphasise that this issue should be solved separately from the decision of who gets to stay in Cinnamon College.
After assessing various suggested preferences (especially from the townhall), here’s what I propose: First, students who have stayed less than four semesters in Cinnamon College should be given priority (a minimum stay of four semesters is assured by USP). Then, we ballot students based on a quota for each batch. This quota will ensure a certain distribution across the different years of study so that we keep the vibrance and intellectual rigour at the college. Since all students stay in their first year, we will have 100% freshmen occupancy. Assuming 600 rooms available, a proposed distribution is suggested in Figure 1. A higher proportion of rooms are proposed for the Year 2s because living in Cinnamon College would continue to facilitate their participation in the USP community from their freshman year.
Moving on to the second part of the solution. The USP community is not, and cannot be, restricted to those living in Cinnamon College. However, with the presence of a residential college, we have to work to ensure that those who do not live in college continue to participate in the community. Very little has been done in this area in the last few years. Many USP events are planned at times which would be convenient for students who live in college, often without consideration for non-residents – I mean events which begin at 8pm. For non-residents who end classes at 6pm, such a timing might not be convenient. Dinner might be free at home, and they don’t have place to freshen up etc.
Attracting USP non-residents to spend more time in the USP campus would increase student participation in student life activities, and more importantly, it would increase the discourse around college simply by the number of people ‘hanging around’ for a chat. One way that has been attempted in the last few years is to schedule USP events (The Sessions has tried this) at a time convenient for non-residents i.e. around 7pm, while also offering the option of dinner for non-residents (organisers would share their meal credits). However, while such an initiative is a good start, it is insufficient because it happens only when there are events, and only when the organisers decide to do so.
‘Where there is food, there will be people’, says Tham, my USPartner-in-crime. Indeed, nothing attracts people to an event like food. The dining hall has been a centre of intellectual discourse and social activity as students and professors chat over meals. In order to attract more non-residents to hang around USP, we should work on a special scheme of meal credits for non-residents. Non-residents could buy, say, 30 credits for the whole semester. From my understanding, the university has had plans to open the dining halls to non-residents of the residential college. USP could pilot such an initiative!
Next, how can we make spaces more friendly to non-residents? At present, non-residents can access common spaces around USP, which includes the Learn Lobes, the college lobby and Chatterbox. A welfare survey in 2014 reported that 64% of students agree that residential access should be for all students (n = 423) (source: 13th MC Minutes on 24th Feb 2014). Other than considering making more common areas accessible to non-residents (like the floor lounges), we should consider making existing spaces more conducive for non-residents. Put yourself in a non-resident’s shoes. It feels a lot like a student’s distress when hanging around our campus during the vacation break without residence. A non-resident does not have a room to stow him/her bag in. Hence, a locker would be very welcome. Or simply shelves where students might store their bags for the evening while they hang around. A pantry to heat up food in a microwave or to brew some tea might be helpful too.
Including non-residents into our USP Campus is an integral part of maintaining our USP community, especially since not everyone can stay in college, and even more now that not everyone who wants to stay can stay in college. Such a consideration is unique to USP because we are a four-year programme, unlike the residential colleges in UTown. If we can attract non-residents to our campus, the USP community will definitely be more vibrant and discourse will be more rife.
The third part of the solution is a radical proposition of ‘forced attrition’ at the end of students’ first year. USP is a challenging programme that requires a substantial amount of time and effort from its students. While USP is not appropriate for every NUS student, the programme is attractive to many prospective students. This is because USP’s small community of intellectuals is an attractive environment to any excited and interested university student (and even faculty!). Hence, it is not surprising that we have a rather high attrition rate when students who were interested either lose interest or realise that they have other non-USP interests which clash. Personally, I’ve had USP batch mates and juniors approach me musing that USP wasn’t their cup of tea. The more decisive of these friends tend to leave USP within the first two years. Some students seem to not intend completion of the programme but choose to stay in college regardless. Such practice is irresponsible, especially given our currently exceeding demand.
Hence, a proposed solution is that after their first year, a certain percentage of freshmen will be asked to leave. Such a solution would give students the opportunity to venture into the programme, only to leave it if they find that they do not fit the ethos of the programme. (I should mention here that this does not mean we should expect freshmen to enter USP knowing and embodying the characteristics of a scholar – what would the point of the programme then? However, we should at least expect them to aspire towards these characteristics.) Such a solution will also reduce the demand for residence by students who do not plan to complete the programme but insist on staying in the college.
How then do we decide who is asked to leave? Faculty could run ‘exit interviews’ at the end of each student’s freshman year to assess their aspirations towards the ethos of USP. Otherwise, we could somehow tie the assessment of these scholarly aspirations to USS. I would caution against using merely grades or number of modules completed a benchmark, because such a benchmark is too premature for freshmen.
This radical solution must be carefully considered before implementation. Of course, we have to ensure that the ‘right’ students are asked to leave. But also important is the issue of publicity and admissions. Once it is publicly known that after their first year a certain percentage of USP students are asked to leave, being cautious, prospective students might think twice about applying. This might attract a better crowd to USP but it would also deter a considerable number who should give the programme a shot.
Instead of simply tackling the problem itself of who gets to stay, this three-part solution works on also attracting non-residents to the USP campus and keeping freshmen who show a genuine commitment to the programme. Such a robust solution will not merely solve the TOHO problem in the short term but will also tackle other issues which USP has developed since moving into UTown; issues which are important to maintain the culture of intellectual discourse in USP.
When USP moved to UTown 8 years ago, the community was worried of what might happen to USP – alums proudly remember the outcry the move caused. This worry slowly turned into efforts to maintain USP’s culture amidst the new environment. I believe that initiatives like The Sessions was founded as part of these efforts. The Sessions, founded way back in 2012, aimed to bring students together from different parts of the college to discuss issues.
Along with maintaining the culture of ‘good ol’ USP’ were efforts to harness what a residential college meant for USP. Houses were formed, arguably, to leverage on the requirement of all freshmen to stay, which could help form a closer-knit community. The dining hall has since (just last year) become a space for study and discourse even when food is not being served.
These continuous efforts to build and maintain our culture of discourse amidst a changing environment have become, in retrospect, instrumental to USP’s growth. This three-part solution is a suggestion, with much consideration and consultation, of what can be done. It doesn’t matter if this solution is accepted or not. What matters is the amount of thought given to our history, our intellectual discourse and the good systems already present in crafting a solution to this problem.
Imran (class of 2018) is a Pharmacy+USP student, most well known for Shahbucks and making noise all around USP.
He adds that he is willing to be hired as a consultant for USP at $25/hr.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.