Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Another one bites the dust

I guess this isn't really hot off the press but by now, most people ought to have known that the University of New South Wales (UNSW) is going to shut down its campus in Singapore because of the low enrollment barely three months after starting operations. You can find reports of the closure of its Singapore campus here, here, here and here.

Originally, an enrollment of 300 in the first semester was planned but after seeing only 148 students in its first batch - 100 Singaporeans and 48 foreigners - the university threw in the towel and decided to pull out of this joint venture with EDB. The setting up of UNSW's Singapore campus was suppose to be a landmark in EDB's drive to turn Singapore into an educational hub as it was suppose to be the first comprehensive private university in Singapore. There are other private universities which have set up operations in Singapore but they are usually operations that offer part-time degrees or specialised programmes like the University of Chicago Graduate Business School. EDB probably decided that it was time to go in for the kill and invested a substantial sum of money - the quantum which it refuses to disclose but is rumoured to be around 80 million AUD - to help set up Singapore's first international private university.

In many ways, the university was an abysmal failure. It did not meet the targeted enrollment figures and most of the undergraduates were Singaporeans, not foreigners. Remember, after all, the point of setting up this university was to attract more foreign students to Singapore. If the point had been to enroll more Singaporean undergraduates, the local universities could have just made available more places.

In retrospect, the university would have been a failure anyway. After, it was charging around $25,000 to 29,000 in annual tuition fees which is the same as what the parent university UNSW charges in Australia. The fees were simply too high. To put it more harshly, there just weren't enough foreigners who believed that it was worth that sum of money to study in Singapore for an Australian degee or, for that matter, any other degree.

That fact may be surprising to some people, especially the geniuses working in EDB. After all, aren't there 75,000 foreigners studying in Singapore? Don't foreign students make up 20 percent of the undergraduates in our local universities? Well, it may be so but we have to ask ourselves how we reached those numbers. Take our local universities for example. Yes, today, 20 percent of the undergraduates are indeed nonlocal compared to 10 percent ten years ago but that is because Singapore offered and still offers shiploads of scholarships and subsidies to those foreign students. Naturally, this lead to an inflation in the number of foreign students in our local universities.

The truth is, very very few of the nonlocal undegraduates in our local universities are full fee-paying students although the option does exist for foreign students. Full fees in local universities amount to 18,000 to 24,000 SGD per annum. How many foreign undergraduates in NUS/NTU/SMU are willing to pay that kind of money?

The paucity of full fee-paying students in our local universities should have warned the those with helicopter vision in EDB that, in the eyes of most foreigners, it isn't worth paying full fees for an undergraduate degree in Singapore. And that is for a degree from our state universities, one of which is suppose to be in the top 20 in some ranking exercise. Yeah, right. If you can believe that, I don't suppose you would have any trouble believing that people from other countries will come to Singapore and pay 120 grands for an undegraduate degree from UNSW instead of going to Sydney and paying 120 grands for the same deal. By the way, the cost of living in Singapore is not that low compared to Sydney but wages (after taxes) in Singapore are less than half of those in Sydney. That ought to give some clues as to why some people would be reluctant to pay that kind of money to get a degree in Singapore.

This whole fiasco has shown that our reputation as an educational hub isn't as fantastic as some people believe and that we have a long long way to go before Singapore can profit from being such a hub. It has also shown how delusional some of our talented planners are. After all, they believe the bullshit about Singapore's education reputation although anyone with common sense and a bit of knowledge of the ground would have believed otherwise.

Tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money down the drain... Who's going to answer for that?


Pandemonium said...

Just to point out something: the cost of an education is not limited to the school fees. Australia's cost of living is way higher than Singapore's. For example, an accommodation in NUS will cost about $200 a month (rough figures), but in Australia, it may go up to $200 a week. Therefore, it may be much cheaper, in absolute terms, to get a UNSW degree in Singapore than in Australia.

However, that being said, I do think this is only one aspect of an education. There are many more to consider.

Fox said...

I don't think UNSW Asia students enjoy government-subsidised accomodations in Singapore. NUS halls are government-subsidised accomodations. A room in Dover right across from NUS would cost you something like 400 to 500 SGD.

Pandemonium said...

The point I'm trying to make is that the cost of living in both countries are different, and this should be taken into account when comparing the costs.

Anonymous said...

Foreign students go to Australia to study not just bcos of the opportunity earn good wages but more importantly, the opportunity to be PR/Citizens with ample space and work/life balance.