UNSW closure – some tough questions

By Choo Zheng Xi

A friend of mine (let’s call him James) made the decision a few months ago to enroll in the University of New South Wales (UNSW) campus in Singapore.

He had taken a gamble and given up his place in NUS’ Business faculty for a chance to be part of an internationally renowned University, finding the local University culture stifling.

Little did he expect to be left with nothing but an unaffordable promise to study in Australia. When I tried speaking to James, he was almost too despondent to comment.

By June, all that will be left of UNSW’s presence in Singapore is going to be the shell of a half finished campus in Changi, and a host of unanswered questions.

Who’s going to pick up the bill?

While the Channel News Asia report on UNSW’s pullout tried to end on an optimistic note (‘EDB says it will continue to pursue these areas and strengthen its relationship with UNSW’), there is no mistaking the fact that this particular relationship has ended in a complete breakdown. As anyone with even a basic knowledge of business deals would know, when contractual relationships breakdown, there is a price to be paid.

Did UNSW break its contractual obligations by leaving Singapore in the lurch? If indeed a condition of the contract was broken by UNSW, Singapore stands to recover the amount it expected to reap from the contract. At minimum, it should be able to recover the sums paid out in wooing UNSW.

In relation to the former amount, estimates were that our economy was to have reaped $500 million a year in direct spending from the campus. As to how much Singapore actually lost in wooing UNSW, EDB has so far kept mum about how much taxpayer’s money has been spent.

All this speculation is completely academic, sadly, as there is absolutely no information on the contract terms between the parties. Hence we don’t even have an idea what the terms of this contract were, let alone how much of it the taxpayer funded EDB can recover.

End the recurring nightmare: rethink our global schoolhouse push

This brouhaha seems uncannily familiar: Johns Hopkins closed its Singapore biomedical facility in July 2006 in acrimony, and English University Warwick voted not to set up a Singaporean campus in October 2005. UNSW’s pullout is probably the ‘unkindest cut of them all’ to Singapore’s effort to be an education hub: it was trumpeted with pride as our saving grace back when Warwick turned us down.

The Channel News Asia report on UNSW’s closure said the EDB was still optimistic that it could reach its goal of 150,000 international students by 2015. This means it needs to make up the shortfall of 70,000 students from its current tally of 80,000 international students. This is pure fantasy: the arithmetic simply doesn’t add up.

Consider that Warwick (if it had set up campus as planned by EDB in 2008) was slated to bring in a pool of 10,000 students by 2022. UNSW was slated to bring in 15,000 students by 2020. Even assuming both the Warwick and UNSW projects had succeeded, we’d still fall considerably short of the 150,000 target in 2015.

Meeting the target would have been premised on drawing similar large university projects. With the failure of UNSW on grounds of poor response, how many more jewels in the Singaporean education crown can EDB bring in? More importantly, what is the cost of these wild goose chases?

More worrying than not fulfilling this unrealistic target is what might happen in our government’s attempt to meet it. Small and unreliable private schools with little oversight might start sprouting up, and might even receive government encouragement to grow for the sake of achieving a EDB’s mandated target.

The consequences of such dubious educational outfits were seen in June 2006, when private school Ritz Everton closed down leaving 50 of its students without redress. In 2005 alone, there were 430 complaints against private schools. It takes little imagination to see how this will exponentially increase if private schools frantically started sprouting up to fill the 150,000 target.

For every private school that closes, Singapore’s reputation for impeccable regulation and competence takes a hit. For every UNSW that uproots there are hundreds of students like James left in the lurch, and innumerable amounts of taxpayer’s money wasted.

Let’s start sensibly reassessing our educational hub aspirations. We should be wary lest the fuel that fires the engines of our economic growth turns out to be our student’s wallets.


Channel News Asia report on UNSW closure

Statistics for complaints against private schools

Closure of Ritz Everton Academy

Warwick votes against Singapore campus

About the author: Zheng Xi is a law undergrad at the NUS and is also co-editor of theonlinecitizen.