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Singapore adopting a more cautious outlook on education hub ambitions

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Even as other countries in the region are stepping up their international recruitment efforts, Singapore is taking a step back
  • The city-state capped international enrolment in 2011, well short of a long-standing goal to attract 150,000 students by 2015
  • Public subsidies and grants for foreign branch campuses in Singapore are now more constrained as well in the wake of several high-profile closures
  • The government continues to encourage international partnerships in Singapore but with a greater emphasis on increasing capacity to meet local demand

In 2002, Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB) launched the Global Schoolhouse initiative. The EDB is concerned with attracting investment to Singapore, and it saw education as an important part of the city-state’s long-term economic development at the time. The goal of Global Schoolhouse was to establish Singapore not only as a regional centre but as a world hub for education, to build the higher education sector to roughly 5% of Singapore’s GDP, and to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015.

The plan was accompanied by millions of dollars in government grants and subsidies, all designed to attract top education brands to establish branch campuses in Singapore. And indeed there have been some notable successes. Over the past decade, Singapore has been in every conversation about the rising importance of regional education hubs, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. And a number of internationally ranked institutions have established branch operations in Singapore, most recently Yale University.

But international student numbers have peaked and begun to fall off and remain well below the target enrolment for 2015. From a recent-year high of 90,000 foreign students in 2010, enrolment had slipped to about 75,000 by 2014. In part, this is a function of increasing competition from other significant education hubs in the region, notably Malaysia, Hong Kong, and China. But it also reflects some important realities on the ground as well.

Both Singaporeans and visiting students continue to have an impressive range of higher education options. Two of the country’s four public universities – the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technology University (NTU) – are well-regarded and highly ranked research institutions. But NUS and NTU, together with the remaining public institutions (Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design) can accommodate about 57,000 undergraduate students combined. There are another 70 or so registered higher education institutions in Singapore that together offer another 54,000 undergraduate seats.

At the end of the day, however, there are not enough university spaces to meet local demand and an estimated 9% of Singapore’s secondary school-leavers go abroad to study. The number of Singaporean students in the US – where students are highly concentrated in elite institutions – reached a ten-year high in 2015 (4,727 students). A larger percentage (roughly 42% of Singaporeans abroad, or about 9,400 students) opts to study in Australia.

This basic demand-supply equation led to a government inquiry – the Wong Committee – in 2012. The committee’s final report recommended an expansion of local higher education capacity, but also triggered a broader public sentiment within Singapore that foreign student enrolment should be capped. A 2014 report from Professor Dean Forbes at Flinders University noted that, “Public responses to the Wong Committee requested a reduction in international students in Singapore in order to open more places for local students. The numbers had been capped in 2011, and the government decided to further reduce the proportion of international students from 18% to 15%. The proportion remains high by world standards. A Universitas 21 Report ranked Singapore second after Australia in international students as a proportion of local students.”

The 2011 cap effectively meant the end of Singapore’s longstanding international enrolment target. Looking back, however, it is easy to think that Global Schoolhouse foreshadowed the Wong Committee report in its attempts to attract foreign providers and, in so doing, to expand the options available both to local and visiting students.

For some years, EDB has recorded a string of high-profile successes in attracting major higher education institutions to open up shop in Singapore. These include INSEAD, John Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, New York University, and the University of New South Wales. As of 2013, Singapore was home to as many as 11 foreign branch campuses and many other partner programmes offered jointly by local and foreign providers.

INSEAD’s Singapore campus continues to operate today but several others have closed, citing the high costs of operating in the city-state. Singapore has been ranked among the world’s most expensive destinations for foreign undergraduate students and as the most expensive city in the world in an annual survey from The Economist.

Citing financial pressures, the University of New South Wales closed its branch campus in 2007 after a very brief operating period, whereas the year before John Hopkins also withdrew from Singapore. New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts closed its Singapore campus in 2015 after having accumulated millions of dollars in debt. And The University of Chicago also opted to relocated its Asia campus from Singapore to Hong Kong in 2015, in part to be closer to the all-important Chinese market.

Every branch campus opening and closure draws a fair measure of attention. What is less commonly known in the case of Singapore, however, is the extent to which many of the branch campus openings of the past decade have been subsidised by public grants. A 2013 statement from Singaporean Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang confirmed, for example, that prior to its campus closure the University of New South Wales had received S$15 million in loans and S$17.5 million in government grants (roughly US$24 million in total at current exchange rates). As to the Tisch campus in Singapore, the Minister added that “EDB provided Tisch Asia with a level of support that was commensurate with the anticipated benefits of having the school in Singapore. To date, EDB has disbursed S$11.68 million in loans and S$5.3 million in grants to Tisch Asia [roughly US$12.5 million at current exchange rates]. EDB stopped disbursements when it realised that Tisch Asia was facing financial difficulties. EDB is in close discussions with NYU on the details of the loan repayment.”

Indeed, 2011’s high-profile opening of Yale-NUS College – a new liberal arts college established in collaboration between the Ivy League university and the National University of Singapore – also apparently relied heavily on public funding supports. “Yale’s potential to expand overseas had been constrained by the 2009 financial crash in which the university lost US$6.5 billion on the stock market, reducing its endowment by 25%,” reports Times Higher Education. “Public funding cuts had also reduced Yale’s budget by $3.5 billion over several years, he said. That left ‘no resources available to be innovative’ until Singapore agreed to cover the cost of the new college.”

The opening of Yale-NUS College reflects Singapore’s ongoing commitment to building higher education capacity through international partnerships, and we can reasonably expect that the country will continue to expand options for local and visiting students.

More broadly, most observers expect that Singapore will remain an important educational player in the region going forward. It seems clear as well, however, that the government has adopted a more cautious outlook with respect to financing any such ventures. In a 2015 interview with BBC News, EDB Assistant Managing Director of Corporate Development Alvin Tan allowed that owing to increased “diversity and quality” in Singapore’s higher education landscape, any future foreign branch campuses would have to be a “complement to strong local options.”

As current branch campus activity in Singapore (and at least some aspects of Singaporean enrolment abroad) also suggests, the city-state may also increasingly be a market for well-ranked – even elite – educational brands.

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