Singapore's ambitious plan to attract top foreign educational institutions to set up campuses here hit a snag when the first full-scale foreign campus, University of New South Wales, citing poor response, closed its doors after only four months.
LIKE the long-term building up of its assets, Singapore has taken years of remaking and branding of its educational system before selling it to the region.
Given the short period of time, it was nothing short of success. It produces top bilingual students who excel globally in Science and Math, with four out of five youths emerging with a degree or a diploma.
It has also attracted some 100,000 foreign students to study here – mostly in primary and secondary schools and up to polytechnic level.
Venturing into universities is, however, a different matter due to a lack of local resources. It involves foreign help, a higher risk and, it is hoped, a faster profit.
Just how things could go wrong just did. It has dealt a blow to its ambition of attracting top foreign institutions to be set up here.
The first full-scale foreign campus, University of New South Wales closed its doors in Singapore after only four months, evicting 148 students, including 48 foreigners, because of poor response.
(Two years ago, Britain’s Warwick University abandoned plans to set up a campus here due to worries about academic freedom.)
The latest setback shows how competitive the region’s university business is becoming.
The competition comes from Asia’s premium universities, especially in emerging China, India and, of course, Japan, which have vastly improved their ability to attract foreign students from both East and West.
This Asian upsurge could pose a stronger challenge in the future to new start-ups like Singapore.
The Australians moved out because of unexpectedly low student enrolment and the prospects of years of losses. Its once hoped for a target of 15,000 students by 2020 appeared unrealistic.
It had expected 300 students in the first semester but got less than half the number; the target for the next semester of 500 was also half-filled.
The abrupt end came as a shock to Singapore and angry students threatened to sue the varsity.
“With the Australians’ reputation and the Singapore government support, I never expected it to end like this,” said a student. “This will affect Singapore’s creditability.”
This, by itself, will not affect Singapore’s goal of hosting 150,000 international students by 2012.
It could, however, put off, at least temporarily, any world-class university from moving into Singapore.
Attracting them, as well as foreign students, is not just a business here. Singapore wants to reduce its people, now numbering 20,000 and rising, from studying abroad. Many of them do not return.
It also hopes to persuade some of the foreigners to make Singapore their home.
The result has been mixed. Singapore has four local universities with a new enrolment of 14,000 students, including foreigners, last year.
In addition, it has six foreign institutions teaching various courses here. They include Insead (France), four American – University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Duke University (US), Cornell University, and University of Nevada Las Vegas, and S P Jain School of Management (India).
However, it could never match the likes of Australia, USA, Canada or Britain in size or scope.
One Singaporean remarked, “We have yet to establish a reputation to woo students away from Australia, Britain, Canada or America.”
Another said, “People who want an Australian education may not want to get it in Singapore, but in Melbourne or Sydney for the environment.”
The home market is too small, the city lacks teaching staff and has no long tradition of higher learning. With its high cost structure, especially rents, Singapore is by no means a cheap study centre.
And unlike its Western rivals, it hasn’t a big student base to provide enough revenue or course options to meet many market requirements.
It has one big advantage though; its policy of bilingualism – English and Mandarin – has carved out a unique role to make it a place for foreigners to acquire language skills.
The global trend of turning universities into an industry and a ‘centre of earning’ – as what Singapore is seeking to do – is facing public resentment.
“In Singapore, with the exception of kindergartens run by the ruling People’s Action Party, education nowadays is less about learning than about revenue, returns or grades,” one writer said.
The hub pursuit has been unpopular with Singaporean students who feel they have lost out to brighter foreigners.
This has raised talk of locals becoming second-class citizens.
The government gives foreigners scholarships and subsidies, while paying Singaporeans can’t even get a place, is a frequent complaint.
A parent wrote a letter to the press last week saying his daughter who had grades A, B, E and a C for General Paper, had been rejected by all three local universities.
The 55-year-old retiree said, “She has met all entry criteria. Not all students are outstanding; you have to be realistic. You can’t say there’s no space.
“If I buy a ticket for a movie, there better be enough seats for me,” he said.
It started a public row with reactions split between people who think she could have been admitted had it not been for foreign students and those who think she hadn’t done enough to qualify.
The criticism is not always fair. Education is one area that has truly achieved dramatic improvements and is the state’s top achievement in the past decades.
Even the stifling campus environment of the last generation has somewhat loosened up, but is far from the academic freedom enjoyed in Western campuses.
When the gap closes, Singapore could be in a better position to attract the best of the foreign universities – and students.