Questions on the UNSW ASIA debacle

After three months in operation, the Singapore adventure of the University of New South Wales has come to an end. Another 22 million Singapore dollars down the drain. The decision to establish a branch campus in Singapore was taken in 2005 and already led to some commotion at that time (see this post). In 2005, UNSW from Australia and the University of Warwick from the UK were the only two foreign universities granted special status by the Singaporean Government (through its Economic Development Board, EDB) to set up a fully fledged independent teaching and research institution offering undergraduate degrees (the UNSW ASIA website has been taken down but click here for some info from the old website and here for some facts).

At that time, the senate of Warwick declined the offer of the Singapore government. The official reason for the Warwick senate to vote against the venture was the big financial risk. An additional reason however was the concern about the lack of academic freedom. UNSW had a different opinion, after all there was “no such thing as absolute freedom of speech in any country”.UNSW opened the doors of its Asia Campus at the beginning of the 2007 academic year, planning to reach a population of up to 15,000 students on the long term. But the campus will be closed down after only one semester:

Before making this decision, the University has explored an extensive range of options. However the enrollment numbers for 2007 did not meet our expectations, and this has caused us to revise our projections. The decision to close down is a difficult one but it is the prudent course of action to take.

UNSW Vice Chancellor, Professor Fred Hilmer inherited the situation when he became VC in 2006. In a press conference in the Straits Times video news he explains the UNSW decision to pull out (see the whole video here):

The economics of the campus, without significant support made it impossible to continue. While we had support for the initial concept from the EDB, as the enrollment played out and as the concept had to be changed, the risk of the venture increased.

The Economic Development Board stated that it regrets the decision of UNSW. Mr Ko Kheng Hwa, Managing Director, EDB said:

We regret that UNSW has decided to close the Singapore campus. EDB has been fully committed and has worked closely with UNSW from day one towards the establishment of its Singapore campus. EDB will push ahead with our efforts to realise Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse vision. We are fully committed to developing Singapore into a premier education hub comprising a rich diversity of high quality education institutions and programmes from all over the world.

UNSW Asia had only 140 students enrolled in its first semester, 100 of them being Singapore residents. The University had a target of 300 students for the first year. This all leaves me with two big questions:

1. What is the real reason? If the target was 300 and the enrollment was 140, would you stop an operation – that has been planned for two years and in which 17.5 million Australian dollars is invested – just after a few months? Of course not! This is just too abrupt. After investing this amount, you would at least try for a few years. Somehow I have the idea that there is more going on, but I can’t figure out what it is.

2. Public universities and their private ventures. I am sure that UNSW and UNSW Asia keep separate books. But somehow UNSW, an Australian public university, will be affected by the costs of the Singaporese adventure. This discussion has come up in relation to the South African branch campus of Monash university as well. It clearly shows the risk of letting public organizations operate privately overseas. Of course, UNSW will argue that their Australian activities will not suffer from the UNSW Asia debacle. But the money has to come from somewhere. The costs are even likely to rise because UNSW has been so decent to offer their UNSW Asia students a place at UNSW in Sydney and will make scholarships available.

Two pressing questions. Whether we will ever know the answer to the first one? I don’t know. But I hope the second one will be discussed because it addresses a fundamental issue.

UPDATE: look at this recent post for some explanations

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