More on UNSW’s quitting Singapore

John Burton
Financial Times
25 May 07

Singapore’s goal of becoming a regional education hub has suffered a setback after the decision by Australia’s University of New South Wales to close its operations in the city-state just four months after it began.

UNSW had been selected by Singapore in 2004 to spearhead what was expected to be the centrepiece of the city-state’s ambitions to be “a global schoolhouse” by establishing a first full-scale foreign university campus with 15,000 students once the project was completed.

UNSW said Wednesday the decision was due to “lower than anticipated enrolments,” with only 148 students in the first semester, half of its projected target. “An intensive review of our operations in Singapore clearly indicates that to continue would involve an unacceptable level of risk to our institution,” said UNSW.

The University of Warwick in the UK, named by Singapore to operate a second planned comprehensive university, decided not to proceed with the project in 2005 after its faculty expressed concerns about the cost and potential curbs on academic freedom in the authoritarian city-state.

The withdrawal of UNSW means Singapore will have to find another two candidates for its foreign university project to complement its current offering of specialised schools, including overseas branches of Instead and the University of Chicago Business School.

Singapore’s Economic Development Board, which is leading the effort to attract foreign educational institutions, expressed regret about the decision, but said it was still “fully committed to developing Singapore into a premier education hub.”

UNSW took the decision shortly before being required to start construction of its campus to replace temporary facilities.

“We looked at the numbers and decided it was not financially feasible. Another problem was that most of the students were Singaporeans, when we wanted a broader mix from around the region,” said a UNSW official, who denied that issues of academic freedom played a role in the decision.

The UNSW decision raises “substantial questions about the capacity of Singapore to move from plan to reality in its global schoolhouse development agenda” and will be discussed “In overseas university circles for months, if not years to come,” said Kristopher Olds at the University of Wisconsin who studies the global growth of universities.

Mr Olds said that UNSW had requested a A$113m loan from the Australian government for the project and an estimated S$80m in subsidies from the Singapore government.

Singapore has hoped that the presence of overseas educational institutions would attract foreign students who might stay on afterwards in the city-state to boost its skilled labour force as it seeks to increase the population to 6.5m from 4.5m over the next decade.

The city-state is trying to become a regional centre for private banking and biotechnology. The UNSW programme in Singapore had planned to focus on science and engineering along with business, languages, media and the fine arts, all sectors that the government wants to develop.

UNSW was warned about Asian campus debacle

Harriet Alexander
Sydney Morning Herald
25 May 07

The University of NSW rushed through plans for its now collapsed Singapore campus so quickly that the university’s governing body was given just 30 seconds to scrutinise the proposal, a senior academic says.

One former member of the governing body said he was so disgusted by the decision in early 2004 that he decided not to stand again for his position on the University of NSW council.

Yesterday the university announced it was abandoning the university’s Asia operation in Singapore after losing millions of dollars on the venture.

Fewer than 150 students had enrolled in the offshore campus this year, far short of plans to have it expand to 15,000 students over the next two decades.

It is the latest hitch in the Australian university sector’s troubled attempts to exploit the lucrative international student market by setting up offshore campuses. Several Australian universities have closed their operations in recent years, while Monash University’s South African campus is said to be losing as much as $6 million a year.

But members of the University of NSW’s governing body had warned the university as early as 2004 the project needed further research and its financial estimates did not stand up to scrutiny.

Jeremy Davis, a former dean of the Australian Graduate School of Management, said his own cost analysis of the venture concluded the administration had “wildly underestimated” how expensive it would be.

His chief concern was that the university would not be able to make enough money from student fees alone to conduct research, without support from a body such as the Australian Research Council. “One of the great concerns was that having entered that enterprise the university would then subsidise it by the back door – funds that should be used on the Australian campus.”

Peter Primrose, a Labor member of the NSW upper house, said the version of the document he had been asked to consider as a councillor did not even contain the latest figures.

“The finances just didn’t seem to make sense to me,” said Mr Primrose, who decided not to stand again for the council after the event. “I just didn’t want to be part of a cowboy outfit.”

John Carmody, a former academic representative on the board, said members of the governing body were given 30 seconds to consider the proposal before they were expected to vote on it. “This is how seriously the university wanted their plans for Singapore to be considered.”

A spokeswoman for the University of NSW, Judy Brookman, said it was not interested in events of the past. “We’re trying to deal with the situation now.”

The vice-chancellor, Fred Hilmer, said the university’s Asian collapse would cost tens of millions of dollars by the time redundancies had been paid, but it was too early to judge how much because the university still hoped to find a buyer for it.

Students will be offered places at the university’s main campus, and given subsidised air travel to Sydney and housing.

While most staff will be made redundant, some will be offered jobs in Sydney

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