The end of the collaboration between Yale University in the United States and the National University of Singapore (NUS) has come under parliamentary scrutiny – over reasons for closing the Yale-NUS liberal arts college, and the way the August closure announcement was handled.
Explaining why Yale-NUS College was closing after a decade of operation, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing told the Singaporean parliament this week that the college did not reach its fundraising target “through no fault of its own” and the transition to a new institution under NUS “would reduce costs to some extent”.
The minister was responding to a raft of questions by concerned parliamentarians pushing for more transparency over the shock decision to shut down Yale-NUS College, announced last month without proper consultation with staff or students.
NUS announced in August that Yale-NUS’s 2021 intake would be its last, and the college’s unique liberal arts programme would be amalgamated into a new interdisciplinary liberal arts college dubbed ‘New College’ at NUS from 2022.
New College would have more course options and enrol more Singaporean students than Yale-NUS, which had 40% of its students from overseas.
The abrupt announcement after just 10 years of operation of Yale-NUS College (YNC) stunned staff and students and raised wider questions regarding the sustainability of the branch campus model’s heavy reliance on host government subsidies, and policy changes that may not be in line with the original partnership’s aims.
“When we first decided to set up YNC, we knew that it would cost more. The cost of education of a YNC student today is more than double that of a humanities or sciences student in NUS. Likewise, both tuition fees and [Singapore] government funding are more than double,” Chan told parliament on 13 September.
“But we accepted this because we saw value in having a liberal arts college in our tertiary education system.
“YNC hoped to raise over SG$300 million [US$224 million] to reach an endowment fund size of around SG$1 billion with government matching and investment returns. This would then have reduced the burden on the annual operating income of fees and government subsidies,” Chan elaborated, adding: “YNC has done its utmost in raising funds, but through no fault of its own has not reached its target.
“Transitioning to the New College will give us economies of scale and reduce costs to some extent. This will be an important consideration, but not the main motivation for the change.”
Chan pointed out that the education ministry had provided capital funding for Yale-NUS’s infrastructure and matched donations to its endowment fund.
In 2020, the ministry provided about SG$48 million to the college in operating grants per year for around 1,000 students, Chan added. On a per-student basis that is more than double NUS on average, reflective of the higher costs of the Yale-NUS education.
The education ministry is “committed” to supporting the new college, he said. “We expect that the tuition fees and costs per student will be lower than that at YNC, in keeping with the vision for the new college to be a more inclusive, affordable and accessible model of education.”
Chan referred to an editorial by NUS President Tan Eng Chye, published on the NUS website at the weekend before the Monday parliamentary hearing, in which Tan said: “Since I became president in 2018, Yale-NUS’s finances have weighed heavily on my mind.”
“Since the inception of Yale-NUS, the Ministry of Education has provided significant funding to Yale-NUS during its earlier years stretching to 2022, while it was ramping up enrolment and building its endowment. After that, NUS and Yale-NUS would carry Yale-NUS’s financial commitments with regular capitation funding, as with all autonomous [public] universities in Singapore, to be supplemented with endowment income,” Tan wrote.
“Despite hard work and best attempts by all parties, Yale-NUS raised less than SG$80 million of endowed donations, about a quarter of the over SG$300 million target which is required to build an endowment of around SG$1 billion. So, even with generous government seed funding and matching, the Yale-NUS endowment is much smaller than needed to sustain it.”
Tan said Yale-NUS operates with a ratio of eight students to each faculty member – compared to more than 17 to one in the rest of NUS. “Furthermore, the majority of Yale-NUS students are on financial aid. Hence, the resources required to operate Yale-NUS are much higher than we had planned.”
Few clues on the real reasons
Linda Lim, emeritus professor at the University of Michigan in the US and co-founder of Academia|SG, an informal grouping of Singaporean academics, told University World News that the minister’s responses had provided no clues to the real reasons for the decision to shut down the partnership with Yale. Minister Chan had said funding was not the main motivation for the change, despite NUS President Tan’s own focus on finances.
“The minister did acknowledge that they knew already that this would be high cost and the question is, is there a cost benefit? And they obviously thought that it was fine at the beginning when they were going ahead” with Yale-NUS.
“That’s why he [Chan] did not focus on the cost argument and went back to an argument for democratisation and being able to accept more students than Yale-NUS,” Lim contended.
“What the minister tried to do, in terms of transparency, is he threw out a couple of numbers to say the cost was twice [the per student cost at NUS]. But because we don’t have the actual costs, we can’t compare them – is he comparing apples and oranges? We need to have the full thing,” said Lim, an economist.
She added that if it cost twice as much, the minister did not explain “how they expect to preserve the educational benefits at half the cost and much larger number of students with the New College model when they’ve already said it [Yale-NUS] was a successful model”.
Lim argued that the minister’s repeated assertions that Singapore continued to be committed to interdisciplinary and global higher education seemed unconvincing, “because what they have done casts doubt on being global, with less foreign faculty and fewer foreign students at New College”.
Questions about lack of consultation
Speculation about the decision, seen by many to be a unilateral one by NUS, and the lack of consultation with staff and students, prompted questions from several members of parliament.
In response to MP’s queries on why students and staff at Yale-NUS were not consulted, Chan said NUS did not do so “because the decision involved discussions between the senior leadership of two universities, and with their respective boards, on sensitive issues of strategy and finance”.
Instead, after the “broad parameters” were settled, NUS wanted to give the maximum amount of time for the transition to occur and for stakeholders to be involved in working through “transition issues”, said Chan.
On the timeline of the decision and announcement, Chan said that NUS initiated discussions with Yale University in early July.
The Yale-NUS leadership was informed in the same month, said Chan. The NUS board of trustees endorsed the decision in early August, and the Yale-NUS College governing board endorsed the transition plans in late August. The first announcement to the public was made on 27 August.
In July, the timing of the announcement was also discussed with Yale and “jointly determined”, Chan claimed. Other sources have said the decision had already been made by the time discussions were held with Yale in July.
Lim said the minister’s statements shed little real light on “the timeline and the drama of it, when key people were consulted and why most people did not know”.
“The fact that it was a shock and done so quickly, that is still a shock. It was done without consultation and there has been no good explanation for that,” she said. The minister “did not say what alternatives were considered, they were not specified, and he did not say why the manner of it was without the normal steps”.
“So, there was no transparency in terms of the decision,” Lim said.
Implications for partnerships in future
Turning to MP’s questions on reputational damage and possible impact on Singapore’s future international partnerships in higher education, Chan said the decade-long partnership with Yale “has given us valuable insights into interdisciplinary liberal arts education”.
But he added that NUS, which is a highly ranked university globally, needed to continue to evolve. “So in our quest for excellence, it means that we must continue to learn from the best internationally. We’re charting our own path forward with confidence.”
Chan noted: “Many of our newer institutions were started in partnership with leading global universities so that we can learn from the best globally. These partnerships have generally progressed, evolved and matured as intended.
“In some cases, they came to a natural end at the checkpoints designed into the initial partnership agreements. Meanwhile our universities continue to seek out new partnerships where we can benefit from the experiences of others and where we can value add to the relationships meaningfully.
“We have much more to learn from others, not just from universities in the United States, but equally from Europe, Asia and elsewhere.” But he added: “We cannot and should not be a clone version of others no matter how successful they may be.”
Chan did not think, however, that the end of the partnership with Yale would have “any implications for any of the other partnerships that we are in, or exploring with others”.
There has been concern about the value of the Yale-NUS degree, a stand-alone degree separate from NUS degrees, once YNC is shut down. Chan said that beyond 2025, NUS would continue to provide “supporting documentation” to explain the context of Yale-NUS and what its degree conveys, as well as provide letters of recommendation or referees if needed by alumni.
“NUS and Yale are both globally renowned universities which are well recognised by employers, including the public sector, and postgraduate institutions. I am confident that the YNC degree will continue to be highly valued, and its past and future graduating cohorts will remain in good standing, even beyond 2025,” he told parliament.