Dean Forbes


Oxford Analytica Daily Brief

DRAFT 27 November 2013

Published version 3 January 2014

Daily Brief articles do not include the author’s name, and are paywall protected.

Professor Dean Forbes

Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor

School of International Studies, Flinders University

A decade and a half ago Singapore set about implementing a ‘global schoolhouse’ strategy. Its’ purpose was to build research capability and supplement the courses on offer, attracting tertiary education institutions and students to Singapore. Ten years later during the great recession anti-foreigner sentiment escalated, peaking about the time of national elections in 2011. It resulted in a re-thinking of Singapore’s global schoolhouse aspirations, a renewed focus on expanding tertiary education opportunities for local students in Singapore, and restrictions on the number of international students.

Singapore’s four public universities include the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technology University (NTU), which are research focused and highly ranked internationally. Singapore Management University and the new Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) make up the four. Combined they provide 56,700 undergraduate places. In addition there are 70 registered higher education institutions offering around 54,000 undergraduate places in overseas degrees.

The island state first initiated a strategy to bring in foreign universities in the late 1990s. The Singapore Economic Development Board launched a ‘World Class University’ program in 1997. It was aimed at making Singapore a global education hub by attracting ten world class universities to Singapore within ten years. The ‘global schoolhouse’ initiative was to expand research, provide a more diverse set of prestige courses, and assist Singapore to attract 150,000 international students.

Some significant university partnerships were formed. An example is the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, established in 2005.

Yale University is the most recent foreign university to engage in the Singapore program. An initial intake of 157 students commenced the 2013-14 academic year in the new Yale-NUS College. The liberal arts university is planned to cater for 1,000 students, centred on residential colleges. Breadth of study and critical thinking will be central to the curriculum, but the degrees awarded to the students will be NUS degrees, not Yale’s.

It has been a controversial decision in Yale’s New Haven base. Vocal critics have argued that Yale should not support a program in Singapore where political rights are severely curbed, students are unable to invite opposition politicians onto the campus, and homosexuality is deemed illegal. Key opposition figures in Singapore have lent their support to the critics.

Around 9% of the Singaporean student cohort currently goes abroad to study in countries such as the UK and Australia. Insufficient local university places for school graduates is a cause. In addition some are looking for degree programs not offered in home universities, where the course structures are narrow and rather traditional. Some go looking for a western education, avoiding the cramped rote learning that sometimes persists in Singapore.

A kerfuffle about immigrants occurred in the lead-up to the May 2011 election, and forced changes to the Governments approach to tertiary education. The great recession had seen many Singaporeans lose their jobs. Foreign talent, as it is called, was targeted because Singaporeans thought they were taking the jobs of locals. International students and graduates were also considered competitors in the labour market.

The Singapore Government responded with an inquiry into university education pathways, chaired by Lawrence Wong, Senior Minister of State for Education. The final report was delivered in August 2012. Recommendations included expanding local institutions, enabling the addition of a 5th and 6th university. The existing Singapore Institute of Technology and the privately owned University Singapore Institute of Management will fill the slots. Unlike NUS and NTU they will not be research intensive, but focus on their teaching strengths. The Government’s target is to raise the school leaver cohort going to university from 27% in 2012 to 40% in 2020.

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.

It coincides with a decline in demand to study in Singapore. In the past an advantage of Singapore was the chance of acquiring good jobs, but this has changed. Global and regional competition for international students is also expanding. The USA is increasing its attention to international students, driven in part by declines in government funding support for public universities. Canada is showing signs of improved competitiveness.

Singapore’s neighbours, particularly Malaysia, have also been making greater strides by devoting more attention to the quality of the main universities and investing in tertiary education precincts. China remains a potentially important source. However China is investing heavily and building on the strengths and attractiveness of its higher quality research universities. While the numbers going abroad are still substantial, the improved English language capacity of the current Chinese students makes a university experience in a western country even more attractive.

Earlier this year, the trade promotion agency International Enterprise Singapore, together with the three established public universities and the Nanyang Polytechnic, joined forces to secure more training and education opportunities abroad. Titled the Singapore Talent Development Alliance, the first target was China. Singapore has tried on many occasions, to build solid economic and social links with China, based on common social and family bonds. The strategy has not always met with the success expected, particularly compared to rival Hong Kong, which has a locational advantage and is formally part of the PRC.

In October a new strategy was announced to attract talented Singaporeans back from abroad. The Returning Singapore Scientists Scheme is targeted at recruiting high performing Singapore scientists to take up leadership roles in scientific research and development.

Not surprisingly, the changing higher education sentiment within Government, and the increased competition for local and foreign students, is making Singapore less attractive to American universities. Several are withdrawing. A Biomedical Sciences research center of Johns Hopkins University, established in 1998, withdrew in 2006; the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business is re-locating to Hong Kong; New York University is closing its Tisch School of the Arts and its Singapore Law School; and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas is exiting in 2015.

The outlook?

Singaporean students will increasingly have more places available to study in Singapore. This will be attractive to those who would prefer to stay home and build local networks to improve job prospects. It is also a less expensive option than studying abroad, despite the high cost of living in Singapore.

However, limits in the curricula and educational style in Singapore may remain a push factor for some students.

Expanded targeted research funding will increase the attractiveness of Singaporean research universities for university researchers currently abroad, and may have a marginal impact on Singaporeans seeking to continue graduate studies. In contrast, high performing Singaporean research post graduates are still more likely to seek a placement abroad. 

Increased global competition and government priorities are likely to slow down Singapore’s attraction as a destination for international undergraduate students, though there might be some increased international post graduate students.


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Matthews, David 2013 ‘Singapore: no sleep for the Lion City’ Times Higher Education, 21 November 2013

Ministry of Education Singapore 2012 Report of the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CUEP) Greater Diversity, More Opportunities, Final Report, August 2012, Singapore. (iBooks)

Seneviratne, Kalinga 2013 ‘More research funding to woo back talent from the West’

University World News No:297, 22 November 2013

Yung, Adele 2012 ‘SINGAPORE: Doubts about fifth public university’

University World News No:203, 2 January 2012

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University World News No:237, 28 August 2012

Yung, Adele 2013 ‘Universities alliance to tap overseas opportunities’ University World News No:257, 1 February 2013