War in Warwick

Singapore dream hangs in balance as staff vote
Matt Sandy

Warwick Boar
17 Oct 2005

The financal implications exposed: £294m campus, up to £200m debt

Disgruntled lecturers will tomorrow attempt to inflict a fatal blow on the Vice-Chancellor’s dream of opening a £294m Singapore campus. The crucial vote by senior academics at the University Senate is “too close to call” according to several well placed sources. Many staff are opposed to the plans over the financial risk involved, worries over academic freedom and a perceived threat to Warwick’s reputation.

A full feasibility study, the cost of which went over-budget by 100 percent to £800,000, had reported that the venture would be financially viable but gave no guarantees on academic freedom or human rights.

A confidential University letter sent last week, obtained by the Boar, reveals a last gasp attempt to obtain concessions from the Singapore government on the lingering question of academic freedom.

And today it can be revealed that the campus, set to cost £294m, would mean the University taking on a debt of around £200m.

In an exclusive interview, Vice-Chancellor David VandeLinde argues that: “This is the best opportunity we will ever receive. If we don’t go, how will we increase our international credibility?”

Senior officials have spent the lead up to the vote frantically lobbying key academics. The boards of the Arts and Social Studies faculties expressed overwhelming opposition to the proposals in emergency meetings last week.

There was more support for the plans from Science and Medicine, both of which returned mixed verdicts. It is understood that the influential Engineering department is still opposed.

If Senate votes against, it will put massive pressure on Council, the University governing body, to follow suit when it makes a final decision next week.

The level of internal opposition has forced the University into a dramatic shift in position in its negotiations with the Singapore Economic Development Board (SEDB).

A confidential letter from the Vice-Chancellor to senior Singaporean officials, obtained by this newspaper, reveals a last minute set of demands on academic freedom.

The letter represents a significant U-turn from just a week earlier, when VandeLinde told the Boar that “Singapore are not going to change their laws to accommodate the University: we have to make the decision as to whether their laws are acceptable to us.”

Many academics were concerned over the realities of academic research in a country where political protest is banned, censorship is a reality and homosexuality is illegal. The harshly worded message asks for guarantees that “its campus in Singapore should enjoy the same degree of academic freedom as its campus in the UK.”

It also asks for “specific exemptions” from a range of Singaporean laws including those that limit freedom of speech and association. It explicitly cites examples of a Gay Pride society or students campaigning against the death penalty as activities that it expects Warwick students to be able to do without government interference.

The protesters achieved a further concession when Mike Baldwin, the Registrar admitted: “If we did get to a situation in four to five years where we have hardly made any progress on these issues then we would have to pull out.”

The University are believed to be expecting a “robust” response from Singapore before Senate meets tomorrow. However, there will not be a chance for the wider community to scrutinise the response before the vote.

The Vice-Chancellor has defended the University against claims of previous complacency on academic freedom: “We have tried to cover this as best we can through a three pronged process. We appointed a respected Singaporean academic, Dr Ti Liann to write a report on academic freedom issues, we sent four recent students out there to write an independent report and we also sought legal advice. Singapore is a different culture, and when you go to a different culture you have to understand the reason for that.”

Every Arts department with the exception of Theatre Studies and History of Art are understood to be against the plans to some degree. Particularly strong resistance has come from the large History and English staff, although the head of History, Anthony McFarlane, is understood to be in favour.

The head of one Arts department has told the Boar that the financial plans have provoked “big concerns” and “strong reservations” and that “many people have held back from getting involved in the planning process” because of this.

He criticised a “locomotive in the administration” and raised concerns that there would be “huge hidden administrative costs” given that “the structure of the University is very stretched as it is”.

Around 70 percent of Social Studies board members voted against the plans at their emergency session. Economics and the Business School (WBS), both considered key departments, are opposed.

A source within the Business School alleges that, “there are no more than one or two individuals within WBS who think the Singapore plan is in any way feasible, financially. Most think that it would have been a good idea ten years ago, but every major player has got a foothold there now, so it’s far too late.”

Another academic, an expert on Asia, argues that the University’s reputation in the region will suffer because of the “money-grabbing” image that some believe the project will create. He also criticised the administration for “ignoring the views of academics”.

The Science faculty is not as vehemently opposed as many in the Arts and Social Studies. One department head summed up the mood, saying, “there is no great enthusiasm for going to Singapore”. Another source described Science as “largely apathetic as the major concerns of academic freedom do not apply so much here”.

The School of Engineering is still the focal point of scientific opposition, despite being the expected centrepiece of a Warwick campus in Asia. Physics are thought to be reasonably against, whilst Chemistry and Maths veer in favour.

The Medical School are known to be “sceptical”, but due to regulations in Singapore, could only play a limited role in the project in any case.

Senate decided almost unanimously two weeks ago that the vote on Singapore will be a closed ballot, with some members arguing that this will help to limit “bully-boy tactics”, with the University “steamrollering” the proposals through.

The three Students’ Union representatives on the Senate have yet to commit to a definite position, but are known to be highly sceptical of the plans.

Following the Senate vote, Council, made up primarily of figures from outside the University, will make the final decision next Tuesday.

VandeLinde argues that, “Council will take into very serious consideration the vote of Senate, especially if it is close. We need the Council there to be ultimately responsible for the key financial decisions.”

Council is expected to prioritise financial viability in its decision, and has set eight ‘critical success factors’ including sufficient ‘market demand’, a ‘self-sustaining financial model’ and ‘viable exit strategies’.

With the conclusion of the study, financial details relating to the plans have begun to seep out. Most elements of the plan have been kept secret to protect relations with the SEDB. Only members of Council and Steering committees have been privy to all the details.

In the first twenty years of a potential campus, construction costs would reach £152m and equipment would cost £130m.

How much of this money would come from Singapore is not clear, although the Boar can reveal that Warwick would be expected to take on a debt of around £150m to £200m.

All students at the campus would be expected to pay full international fees of £11,970, considerably more than any local University. VandeLinde argues that Warwick would be looking to be “a UK University in Singapore” and could therefore justify charging higher fees.

A key claim by the University is that “we will not be taking money away from the Coventry campus”. However, should the Singapore project not go to plan, the University will pull out after seven years, leaving a £50m debt to be serviced.

The feasibility study itself ballooned to cost more than £800,000, double its original projection. The University have denied this, arguing that the original £400,000 budget was for the 2004/5 financial year. They admitted however that no extra money had been allocated for this year, although later contacted this newspaper to say that this was incorrect.

Some staff have criticised the nature of the financial plans. Richard Higgott, Director of the Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation, argues that it is “simply too mathematical” and cannot cope with the potential “sensitivities of grant funding”.

Another worry that has yet to be settled at the time of going to press is research funding. The University boast that a new ‘National Research Foundation’ will have one billion Singapore dollars to distribute for research between Warwick and three local Universities each year.

75 percent of all research funding is expected to come from this and other local research councils, and overall research will account for 50 percent of revenue.

However, last week the Vice-Chancellor flew out to Singapore to resolve an “outstanding issue”. It is understood that he was seeking concrete reassurances that the Singaporean government will fully meet its funding commitments to research.

Some staff have expressed concerns about the nature of research being determined by a combination of the Singapore government and the private market. A department head commented, “The University do have a commitment to redistribute money across departments, but it is hard to see how this would work in Singapore.”

Underpinning the financial model is an extensive piece of market research conducted amongst school leavers in India and China. It concluded that should Warwick Singapore achieve a reputation equivalent to that of Warwick UK, then under optimistic assumptions, demand would exceed capacity by nearly ten times.

However, the research also showed that most students would strongly prefer the reputation of an institution in the UK or US rather than in another Asian country.

It notes: “Many international students are looking for immersion in the culture of an English-speaking advanced economy and Singapore might appear an inferior location from this perspective”.

The report also showed that Warwick’s international reputation is severely lacking. In one case, Indian pupils were asked to classify Western Universities into ‘prestigious’, ‘preferred’ and ‘not considered’. Warwick fell into the latter group.

Some academics have raised concerns over the quality of students that the campus would attract. This point was made at the emergency Arts faculty meeting, and one Social Studies academic has argued “that a Singapore campus would lead to “students who aren’t good enough to get in to Warwick UK, taught by academics not good enough to research here.”

However, VandeLinde argues that, “we’re not worried because we know that Warwick has to take a step forward, we need to become the second tier in that kind of classification. We know we need to improve our reputation.”

The Vice-Chancellor denies that the project is ultimately about money: “I don’t think there will be an increase in revenue, yes the revenue gets bigger but that isn’t the endgame.”

“This is the best opportunity we will ever receive to progress in the international world of higher education. If we don’t go, how will be increase our international credibility? This will enable Warwick to do [for its reputation] in a small number of years what it might take another 30/40 years to do”.

“I want a University with a fantastically increased diversity and understanding of the world that we live in. Singapore is a bridge to Asia and Asian culture, which is going to be incredibly important in the next century. That is at least as important as increased name recognition.

“If this is successful I will be proud to have been something to do with this. The last thing in the world to do is to try and create a legacy when leaving a University that you are later reviled for because it is the wrong thing to do.”

The SEDB first approached the University in early 2004, with the suggestion of establishing a full second campus in Singapore. Imperial College, London and the London School of Economics had previously rejected their advances.

An initial investigation was commissioned by Warwick in September 2004 and concluded by early 2005, when the full feasibility study began.

In February, the Boar first reported internal opposition to the plans relating to the financial risks involved and in March, VandeLinde reportedly stated that the project could be a “sinking ship” in which “people were not so much rocking the boat as drilling holes in the side.

Academic revolt cripples Singapore plans

Matt Sandy
Warwick Boar
17 Oct 2005

Abstained: 3, Against: 27, For: 13

An overwhelming rebuff from academics has left plans for a Singapore campus on the verge of collapse.

Senior lecturers voted by 27 to 13 not to proceed with the £294m plans in a closed ballot at the University Senate last week. Three members abstained.

The vote followed a fiery two and a half hour debate involving the majority of the 43 members present.

The show of defiance puts significant pressure on Council, the sovereign body made up of figures mostly external to the University, to also reject the proposals when it meets this afternoon.

“The Senate vote means that the plans have been effectively killed off,” according to a senior academic source. “There would be a tremendous amount of indignation should they decide to proceed now – it would be almost unworkable”.

In an interview with this newspaper before the vote, Vice-Chancellor David VandeLinde conceded that a strongly negative result at Senate would probably mark the end of the project.

He said, “Council will take into very serious consideration the vote of Senate, especially if it is close. If there is a very strong vote against at Senate, then obviously Council probably will not go”.

It is understood that the final deal put on the table in relation to the key stumbling blocks of academic freedom and research funding did little to impress most academics.

The Vice-Chancellor had attempted to achieve further concessions from the Singapore Economic Development Board (SEDB) in a series of last minute negotiations.

A harshly worded letter asked for guarantees that the “campus in Singapore should enjoy the same degree of academic freedom as its campus in the UK” and for “specific exemptions” from a range of Singaporean laws including those that limit freedom of speech and association. One Senate member, however, described the response to this letter from Singapore as “a lot of nothingness”. VandeLinde last week flew out to Singapore to resolve an “outstanding issue” regarding research funding.

The requested guarantees, over the extent of the Singapore government’s control over research on the campus, were not forthcoming. Even without these last-minute setbacks, however, it is doubtful that Senate would have approved the Singapore plans.

The boards of the Arts and Social Studies faculties expressed overwhelming opposition to the proposals in emergency meetings last week, whilst the level of support from Science and Medicine has been tepid at best.

Council has set eight ‘critical success factors’ on which it will base its decision. One of these mentions “sufficient buy-in from academic colleagues”.

It is now likely that Council will conclude that this does not exists and therefore reject the proposals.

However, Council has been known to base decisions largely on finances before, and there is a small chance that it will conclude that the sufficient ‘market demand’, ‘self-sustaining financial model’ and ‘viable exit strategies’ reported by the feasibility study are enough to warrant proceeding.

The Vice-Chancellor has been one of the biggest enthusiasts for the scheme. He told this newspaper last week that, “this is the best opportunity we will ever receive to progress in the international world of higher education. If we don’t go, how will we increase our international credibility?” The SEDB first approached the University in early 2004 with the suggestion of establishing a full second campus in Asia.

An initial investigation by the Asia Exploratory Group in late 2004 recommended a full feasibility study, which in turn was commissioned in February of this year.

The University has faced significant internal opposition since announcing the plans, with many academics arguing that their views were being ignored.

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