Acads at NUS – Hardik Mehta

My previous posts have been about Singapore and life here, not about NUS specifically. I shall talk about NUS in this post. It has been about 5 weeks since classes started, and I have noticed several striking facts in NUS, related to academics and otherwise.

Quick facts
The University is huge – 30,000 students, with faculties of Engineering (10,000 students), Medicine, Business, and Science. The professor to student ratio is roughly 1:10. Everything indoor on this campus is air-conditioned. It’s a lot more hilly than IITB – the 1st storey of a building connects to the 6th storey of another. Internal buses are way cooler than tum-tums as they are all air-conditioned and spacious enough.

Accommodation linked to extra-currics!
I noticed a very striking thing in the first few days, after I spoke to an NUS student, about the competition levels in various activities here. Like IITB hostels, they have many different ‘houses’ on campus here. What is different is that everyone doesn’t get to stay on campus; there is just not enough space and hence some locals stay at home. The university allots every student points for applying for accommodation. If they are overseas students, they are given more initial points than local students, giving them a required initial advantage. Then at the end of every semester, all students have to re-apply for accommodation; almost everyone does since they all want to stay on campus. You earn points through the semester by participating in various activities on campus. They have a mind-boggling number of posts in every club. You can get points by just being a member of a club (for which you have to go through auditions) or you could earn more points by holding a post on the committee of each club, :
For example, something as simple as a dive club has so many committee members:
You use these points to apply for accommodation on campus every semester. The shittiest part of this system (as I see it) is that there is no consistency in terms of the people living next to you; it’s very likely that either you or your friend will be thrown out the next semester. There is no sense of belonging to a hostel (house) – although the concept may not be as strong here, it isn’t unheard of. This is done because the Singapore government (yes, with a country as small as this, government policy will literally reflect in almost every policy of the institute) wants kids to be as multi-talented as possible, with a competitive streak. It is unique, I won’t debate it here, but personally I feel it’s shitty. Also because a kid from abroad doesn’t do well, he just may have to live off campus. And like in IITB, you will lose out on a lot by living off-campus.

Courses Auctioning
Another important fact that I noticed here is the auctioning of courses. Basically, it’s a system where students are given limited points to bid with (say 100). You bid for the courses you think are more important with more points, improving your chances of getting those courses you value more. This is a system that ISB follows as well. Though, it isn’t as consequential in the school of engineering as it is in the school of business, and arts, as engineering course preferences are decided by the direction of specialization.

The courses themselves
The level of difficulty in courses, as all of us have observed across our courses, has been on-an-average, tad simpler than in IITB. The kids here print notes beforehand, bring them to class (they do come to class despite having notes beforehand! I presume in IITB, this would have an opposite effect, hence professors are skeptical about giving notes until after lectures). More so because lectures are conducted in a fashion that ensures people not attending will be at a disadvantage in the examinations(no compulsory attendance in any of the courses, by the way). Especially, given that the absorption rate of students in the classroom here is way better than IITB. More than 3/4th majority of the students here seem to listen to at least half of what the professor says. One reason, I guess, is that you can consume coffee inside class (and eat as well).

Midsems are not conducted for all courses, it’s at the professor’s discretion. As a result, I had the week off, no midsems, and I spent a week in Thailand (my next post ;)). As you take advanced courses(senior level courses), midsems give way to continuous evaluation in terms of project work, assignments, term papers. I find it to be somewhat better as it makes the evaluation more continuous (do keep in mind that plagiarism in academics is a serious issue here. Hence this translates into more independent work, it’s not just redundant reproduction of material). In one of my courses there is a course project, that has 50% weightage. The teams that do the best work will be sent to a competition in Beijing, a great incentive to create quality projects.

Also, one surprising difference is that there are no independent lab courses. Everything is taught as a part of the courses.

The infrastructure built around the courses is very impressive. Professors share a whole bunch of multimedia along the semester, that includes papers, videos, supplementary notes. The classrooms are, no doubt, amazingly equipped technologically, each more sophisticated than LHC.

Exchange Culture
The number of students who go on exchange from NUS is insane. But again, that has a lot more to do with the idea of Singapore than NUS (I mean to say Singapore in general, rather than just NUS, works towards international exchange) In 2009,the number of students on exchange from NUS was a mind-numbing 1400! Also, a lot of people go for semester long internships. This is true for many countries outside India. In NUS, its called Industrial Attachment – doing an internship for a semester with a company is equivalent to doing 3 courses.

Be sure to catch my next post where I’ll share experiences from my trip to Thailand!