Thursday, May 24, 2007

On UNSW Asia's low enrollment figures

This blog has been getting quite a few hits recently, thanks to my previous post on the UNSW Asia fiasco. As everyone knows, this is no small thing with tens of millions of taxpayers' money down the drain. For everyone involved, it is a spectacular failure.

Well, enough of the nay-saying. Rather than indulge in conspiracy theories as to why the UNSW hastily withdrew from this venture, I think the reason behind the closure of its campus in Singapore is fairly simple: it didn't believe that it could make money from that venture and couldn't stomach the financial risk.

Remember, the UNSW isn't a charity organisation. It didn't set up operations in Singapore because it wanted to offer more options for college applicants or enrich the experience of its students. No, it wanted to make money. That is the primary reason why it came to Singapore. When it saw that initial enrollment was barely half of its targeted figure, it decided to shut down business.

Of course, there are those those who say that it may have rather hasty to withdraw on the basis of one semester's enrollment after its investment of millions. But we have to remember, the UNSW is a state institution in Australia and public organisations in Australia are not like EDB or Temasek Holdings; they are under much higher public scrutiny and have to answer for investments gone bad. It was just a bad investment decision for everyone involved. Maybe the apparatchiks in EDB wanted to play hardball with them or maybe they realised, too late, that they can never meet the enrollment figures in the foreseeable future.

This brings us to the questions:

1. Why didn't they meet the target enrollment figures?
2. Why did they realised that its operations wouldn't succeed in Singapore?

I think the answer to the first question is fairly obvious. It's really matter of supply and demand. Obviously, the demand wasn't there. In other words, it priced itself out of the market when it expected to charge annual tuition fees of 25,000 to 29,000 SGD, equal to what it charges in Australia.

Those fees are really too exorbitant. Now, this may come as a shock to many people but there are already international universities in other countries in the region. Take Monash university for example. It has had a campus in Petaling Jaya for many years and you can see for yourself what its fees are like here. A lot cheaper than UNSW Asia, I must say, considering the exchange rate of 2.22 MYR to 1 SGD according to Yahoo. The fees for Monash range from 25,000 to 32,000 MYR or, in SGD, 11,200 to 14,500, less than half of what UNSW was charging.

Monash University isn't the only foreign university that has set up operations in Malaysia. The University of Nottingham also has a campus there, offering a range of undergaduate and postgraduate courses at about the same rates as Monash. Definitely a lot more affordable than UNSW Asia. Now, you can see what UNSW was up against.

If you think about it, why on earth would anyone want to pay 25,000 SGD to study in UNSW Asia when he/she can pay half of that to study in Nottingham or Monash in KL? Oh, the cost of living is much lower in KL too. The reason why UNSW did not take off in Singapore was that the competition from across the Causeway was too strong. From this CNA article, Professor Hilmer, the Vice-Chancellor of the UNSW, claimed:
"Last year....we actually had much stronger demand in Sydney than we had in the previous four years. I think one of the things we've learnt, and it's really for Singapore to draw its own lesson, is that geography is really important. When a student says he wants an Australian degree, what he really means is, 'I want the experience of living in Sydney', and not just in educational terms but riding a surfboard, doing the other things a lot of students in a campus like ours, do."
Not really. If that were so, Monash would have closed down its Malaysian operations a long time ago. Anyone who takes that as a message from a burning bush needs a swift kick to the balls.

To be fair, the UNSW ranks higher in terms of academic reputation but surely its reputation doesn't command a premium of 100 percent in fees. Furthermore, the UNSW Asia degree could have suffered from the stigma of being a second-rate compared to a degree obtained from the main campus. Also, if they qualify, foreign students have the option of enrolling in NUS/NTU/SMU where the fees are subsidised (in exchange for signing a 3-year bond which only restricts one to working in Singapore). All these factors resulted in the diminished pool of foreign students willing to pay to attend UNSW Asia.

By now, the answer to the second question should be fairly obvious. I hope I don't have to tell you why. If you still don't get it, let me go get my steel-tipped boots.


Anonymous said...

I was told UNSW fees are almost double that of Monash and others because theirs is a double degree programme.

Fox said...

Nope, not true. You can see what Monash charges for its double degree programmes here. Monash charges the same rate for its double degree programmes as it does for its single degree ones.

Mole said...

From the list of charges I see, Monash charges about SGD46,000 (RM12,815 X 8 Semesters = RM102,520) for its double degree courses. If UNSW Asia's SGD29,000 is a double degree course, it is indeed cheaper.

Fox said...

UNSW Asia charges 29,000 SGD per annum, not for the entire course.
That amounts to 116,000 SGD for a 4-year course.

jolly said...

it's true that when people say they want an australian degree, they mean they want it in sydney, *especially when they are paying the same fees.* who would wanna pay the same amount of fees while losing the chance to experience the real australian education, along with its distinct college culture as opposed to that of singapore?

the only advantage singapore has is the arguably cheaper cost of living, and perhaps family ties for those people can't leave their loved ones behind, which may be the reasons those 148 enrolled in UNSW Asia. or the chance to experience the tropical lifestyle, for some foreign students.

Fox said...

I don't disgree with you. The fees are just too high. However, I believe that one major for the low enrollment figures is the presence of Monash and Nottingham in Malaysia. You can get pretty much the same thing for half the price.

KiWeTO said...


If UNSW is an Aussie state organization, and is required to be publicy accountable, wouldn't the information about this 'pull-out' and the costs written off in setting up a foreign campus be available in their next annual report? ;-)

interesting information about EDB's negotiating tactics and sweeteners might come to light then!


Anonymous said...

Now that UNSW asia is closing down, I heard that the students currently enrolled in the university get a S$ 22,000 scholarship per year, regardless of grades, if they choose to pack up and move to sydney. So they are pretty much not paying anything at all for their degrees. No doubt that the money is meant to compensate for the higher living costs in Sydney, but anyone who was enrolled in UNSW Asia I believe can easily afford moving to sydney without the $22000 help. Its kinda wired, having given a thought to the singaporean students already in Sydney.

Fox said...

No. The 22,000 SGD doesn't go towards paying for the tuition fees. Accomodation is expensive in Sydney. Hence, the 22,000 SGD is meant for accomodations and the air ticket home.