Looking to 2022: Transforming NUS hostels for graduates of the future

 | By Associate Professor Ho Han Kiat | 

At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, NUS joined hands with the Multi-Ministry Taskforce to tackle an unprecedented challenge for Singapore: how do we create sufficient recovery facilities for the tens of thousands of migrant workers in order to curb the raging virus that was spreading across the dormitories?

We sprung into action and emptied our hostel rooms at Prince George’s Park Residences (PGPR) during the long vacation from May to July, and committed this timely asset to reinforce the national efforts. In fact, we did more than just availing the rooms. Students across our hostels stepped up spontaneously and put together an online programme called Guest Students@NUS for the migrant workers to do daily exercises, enjoy song and dance performances online, learn basic skills such as financial literacy and conversational English.

This experience culminated in a dignified send-off when the workers completed their stay with us, where each of them received a gift pack reminiscent of the extraordinary hospitality that took them by surprise. In retrospect, we offered more than a safe space for recovery; we offered a learning experience and a glimpse into the heart of the NUS community.

While this exercise is done and dusted, a few learning points illuminated more strongly on hindsight:

(1) We have a sizeable hostel capacity that can do a lot more than just providing accommodation;

(2) With thoughtful planning, a living space can be a good learning space; and

(3) If you can define a compelling cause, students will respond generously and out-give your expectations.

These are the very ideals that now undergird the hostel transformation that is coming to life this August 2022.

But wait – what is there to transform?

More than four walls

Today, NUS hostels hold approximately 11,000 students on campus. For our residents, a campus hostel is a home away from home. It sounds like a tired cliché, but absolutely true. At the most basic level, all homes must satisfy essential physiological and security needs. We pride ourselves in keeping all amenities adequate for the occupants so that our students may focus on other aspects of learning, but given the high proportion of  time spent at the hostels for any resident, we can do so much more within the same space.

Specifically, hostels offer the privilege of a close-knitted community, brought together by a common identity as NUS students. This neighbourhood then becomes a conduit to exchange ideas, to share common interests, or simply to provide proximal support in times of need. Through corridor conversations, lifelong friendships are nurtured, and good ideas can be incubated and refined to become tomorrow’s innovations.

In fact, the hostel identity can even supersede the NUS identity for alumni – I remember meeting some alumni who spent the entire dinner talking about their hostel memories instead of talking about what they remember from their classes! Clearly, providing accommodation is only the starting point. The deliberate shaping of this space with additional activities will then create a multiplier effect to bring both tangible and intangible benefits beyond the physical dimensions.

Hostels offer holistic development at its core

Hostel living is an extension of holistic learning. But must it be? This is an interesting question to consider, because one would think that at a University, we already have more than enough rooms for “learning”. Why do we need another one?

I will answer this by making reference to the NUS educational philosophy. The expressed statements in this philosophy articulate a few key attributes of a desired NUS graduate. Upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that most of these attributes cannot be accomplished within the confines of a classroom. Rather, it advocates the holistic development of individuals by exploiting opportunities nestled within living space.

For example, one learns how to be a constructive and responsible member of a community, by simply organising a block supper, that helps foster camaraderie within the neighbourhood.  Perhaps another will learn to supercharge their communication skills through running for a hostel council election, and persuading others to vote for their new ideas. Intuitively, to thrive in such an environment would require a complete embracing of diversity and inclusiveness as one grows the cultural intelligence quotient amidst their day-to-day experience. Such is the celebrated life skills for the future where global citizenship will become common place.

Building a strong connection to give

Next, effective learning in the hostels can evoke generous giving. As residents begin to feel comfortable and connected to the community, they may also subscribe to the cause of the hostel as their own cause.  A good illustration would be the few blood donation drives initiated by residents across NUS in 2021. Even while we still maintained relatively strict safe management measures within campus, our residents put forth compelling proposals to run such campaigns on campus. Their efforts garnered strong backing from the rest of the residents and they outpaced the donation from the rest of NUS for any given year.

This brings to mind how the hostel environment can widen the worldview of individuals and to nurture interest beyond self. By leveraging the zeal and talents of residents within the same space, we can harness and proliferate individual empathy through communal accountability, gearing the entire hostel to become an unstoppable force for greater works.

Learning to give, starts at home.

So really – what are we transforming?

The ongoing hostel transformation is a deliberate attempt to advance the philosophies that we described. There are two key strokes that characterise this change.

For one, we are formalising a new housing concept titled ‘House’. This is defined by existing hostel Pioneer House (previously PGP House) and an upcoming LightHouse. Houses are positioned with reduced requirements for CCA participation, and in so doing, help channel the resources and time towards strengthening peer mentoring and support. Devoid of a meal plan that binds the students within a community hall, the House concept advocates smaller group engagement, which in turn catalyses greater peer accountability. We also envisage more Houses to be launched in the coming years to create and grow a new vibrancy around this concept.

On the other hand, our existing Student Residences model, consisting of PGPR and UTown Residence (UTR), continues to offer no frills accommodation for students who desire such arrangements. Yet, even this model would benefit from enhanced onsite pastoral care and a greater sense of home. Therefore, we are installing full-fledged Masters and Residential Fellows to provide an increased level of local governance and wellness support. Through this provision, our residents can be assured of a safe and warm environment that liberates them to excel.

In totality, all these changes embrace student diversity by providing more options to meet individualised needs. Effectively, we now present four distinct housing concepts where students can choose according to their preferred level of engagement:

(1) Halls of Residence with a plethora of CCAs and rich heritage;

(2) Residential Colleges with thematic academic programmes;

(3) New Houses with emphasis on peer mentoring and collaborative leadership; and

(4) Student Residences with reinforced pastoral care.

It is our hope that this transformation will firmly integrate campus life into the tapestry of holistic learning, and grow our students into tomorrow’s leaders of change.  It takes a village, and this is ours.


About the author

Assoc Prof Ho Han Kiat

Associate Professor Ho Han Kiat is the NUS Dean of Students, and an academic staff of the NUS Department of Pharmacy. In 2009, he started his own research programme in NUS, exploring various aspects of liver diseases including the management of drug-induced liver toxicity, liver fibrosis and liver cancer. Over the years as a faculty member, he has published more than 90 papers in internationally recognised journals and has won multiple university-level teaching excellence awards, including the Outstanding Educator Award in 2020. He is the Vice President of the Toxicology Society of Singapore, and a diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology.



Looking to 2022 is a series of commentaries on what readers can expect in the new year. This is the final instalment of the series.

Click here to read Professor Tommy Koh's commentary on three upcoming anniversaries that will be key to international geopolitics.

Click here to read Professor Danny Quah's article on how societies can build back stronger from the pandemic.

Click here to read Professor Freddy Boey's views on opportunities for start-ups in the New Normal.

Click here to read Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser's commentary on enhancing retirement financial adequacy for our seniors.

Click here to read Professor Paul Tambyah and Assistant Professor Lionel Lum's views on the direction of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Click here to read Associate Professor Simon Poh’s take on Singapore’s upcoming tax landscape.