UNSW Asia: the conjuncture of events

Posted by Eric on July 4th, 2007

(update below) Fred Hilmer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, looks back on the UNSW Asia debacle. One of the question that I asked in my post immediately after UNSW’s announcement was about the real reason for UNSW’s sudden departure. Much news has been reported since, but none of the explanations can fully explain it. Hilmer points to the low enrollment numbers as the reason and the fact that the Singapore Economic Development Board wasn’t willing to accept their rescue plan.Today it was also reported that high fees led to the fall of the Singapore Campus. This has been said by many others but it can’t be a sufficient reason. Other senior academics at UNSW Asia blamed a lack of marketing for its demise. Sure, this might be part of the explanation as well. Simon Marginson of the University of Melbourne University explained that the business plan was plain bad and based on too rosy a set of enrollment projections.

I think we have to conclude that there is not one single reason for UNSW’s pull-out. It is more a concurrence of circumstances that led to a major fiasco. But why hasn’t this been foreseen by a big professional organisation like UNSW? Hilmer basically inherited the whole situation and the only thing he could be blamed for, is for opening the campus at all at the start of this year. The establishment of the UNSW Asia campus of course goes further back in time. At least until 2003.

It is interesting to see that the whole development of the UNSW Asia idea has coincided with a period of rather unstable governance. For a period of ten years the university was under the energetic leadership of John Niland. Niland has a good relation with Singapore and extensive knowledge about the region. He is currently Member of the Board of Trustees of the Singapore Management University. However, keeping in mind that UNSW was only approached by EDB in 2003 to consider setting up a campus in Singapore, it is unlikely that Niland was involved as a VC.

This means that the whole process, from EDB invitation to the closure in May 2007, took place in no more than 4 years. In these 4 years however, the UNSW has had 3 Vice-Chancellors! The first contacts with EDB have been with Rory Hume, now Provost at the University of California. Hume became VC in 2002 and resigned in 2004, because of the way he handled a case of academic misconduct in the university. Hume’s successor was Mark Wainwright who held the VC Office from July 2004 until his retirement in June 2006. This must have been the period where the main negotiations with the EDB have taken place and where the plans for the campus were formed. It was under Wainwright that UNSW Asia was officially launched, that Greg Whittred was appointed president of UNSW Asia and two deputy presidents were announced.

So in 2006 Fred Hilmer left his position as CEO of John Fairfax Holdings and became VC of UNSW. When he came into office, UNSW Asia basically was a ‘fait accompli’. Hilmer has never been a true believer in the Singapore venture, but he did not really have the option to pull out since all agreements were made and everyone was set to go. The Singaporean Strait Times (26 May, 2007) reported that ‘the death knell for the Singapore campus was sounded the very week that Prof Hilmer took over on June 19, 2006′. He pulled out eventually because financial risks would steeply rise with the construction of a city campus in 2008.

A leading actor in the whole saga – and the one that actually signed the MOU with the EDB in April 2004 – is Former Deputy VC for International & Development, John Ingleson. He held this position since 2001 and was also CEO of the international education, training and consultancy arm of UNSW, New South Global. While he was an outspoken advocate of UNSW Asia – and of global academe in general – he seems to be the most silent factor in its aftermath.

Ingleson left UNSW after vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer restructured the university’s top level a year ago. He is now Deputy VC I & D at the University of Western Sydney and also member of the Board of Directors of IDP (a company offering student recruiting and testing services and is part-owned by the Australian universities). The same company also undertook a program-level marketing research for UNSW Asia and was the exclusive recruiter of international students for UNSW Asia.

My two cents? A bad business plan, pursued by an over-enthusiastic DVC who overestimated economic opportunities and underestimated risks in the global higher education market. While there were plenty of reasons to slow down the development of UNSW Asia and the individuals pushing it, this never happened because clear and stable leadership at the very top was lacking at that time. By the time Hilmer inherited the situation, it was a done deal. He tried to make a deal with the Singaporeans but they didn’t bite. Option 1: run the risk of even higher costs because of the construction of a campus; Option 2: get out, now costs are still bearable. May 23…Press conference…option 2…closed.

UPDATE 18 July: Rory Hume, in a letter to The Australian, argues that the decision to start the Singapore Campus was not made in haste. He explains the events until he left to the US. What happened afterwards?

I do not know what happened during the following three years as UNSW worked to finalise a business plan and arrangements in Singapore to enable the project to succeed.

If it’s true that Hume has indeed been very careful in making the decision, my interpretation would be that the crux has been in the negotiations with the EDB. Agreements made in these negotiations – by Ingleson, probably – have been re-evaluated by Hilmer when he came to UNSW.

To the commentators below: Anonymous, I still don’t think that the whole UNSW disaster can be attributed to Hilmer. Hume’s letter ssems to support that things went wrong in the negotiations between UNSW and EDB. Paul: I think that my update above strengthens your point even further. And Jon: I don’t know if it was bound to fail, but under the existing agreements it probably was. In general you can observe that it is very hard to make a viable business model for overseas branch campuses.

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