Yale Joins March to Singapore as Asia Students Excel

The first Chinese citizen to earn a degree at a Western college went to Yale in 1850, according to the university. Now Yale is joining the return trip to Asia.

Yale University plans to set up its first foreign campus in Singapore to gain a foothold in a region that provides some of its brightest students, while the liberal-arts institution brings the Yale brand in Singapore’s quest to build a regional center of learning, Peter Salovey, Yale’s provost, said in an interview. Three of every 10 higher-education students worldwide now enroll in Asian colleges, according to the United Nations.

“There is no doubt that the future of Yale and other great universities is to have a global presence,” Salovey said. “We would like to be in parts of the world that represent important crossroads with increasingly thriving intellectual cultures.”

Yale would join Duke University, the University of Chicago, Imperial College London and France’s INSEAD among colleges to set up a campus in Singapore, a nation that restricts public speech and controls information in the media and on the Internet. The city-state of 5 million people, with an area smaller than New York City, wants to attract 150,000 international students by 2015, increasing the contribution education makes to Singapore’s gross domestic product to 5 percent, from 3.2 percent last year.

“Education is not very sexy when we compare it to the export of electronics or pharmaceuticals, but it’s beginning to be one of those important small areas which is providing a source of future growth,” said Song Seng-Wun, an economist at CIMB Research Pte. in Singapore.

2013 Opening

Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, signed a memorandum of understanding in September with the National University of Singapore, or NUS, to build the 1,000-student college, scheduled to open in 2013.

Sixteen colleges in other countries have a presence in Singapore, attracting 86,000 students from 120 nations in 2007, according to the government’s Economic Development Board.

The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School started classes in 2007, and Imperial College London said last month it planned to set up a medical college at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, creating the U.K. university’s first foreign campus. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, said in January it will help set up the new, publicly funded Singapore University of Technology & Design.

NUS ranked 31st in this year’s survey of universities by London-based QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd., 16 places above Peking University, China’s highest-placed institution. Yale was third, trailing the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. NUS partner Duke is based in Durham, North Carolina.

‘Rising Powers’

“The U.S. remains the dominant force in higher education, but the balance of power is shifting,” QS said in the report, citing budget cuts and endowment declines. “The beneficiaries of recession in the West, in ranking terms, may be the rising academic powers of Asia.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development’s 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, released on Dec. 7, ranks Singapore fifth of 65 countries and regions, 12 places above the U.S. Asia took four of the top five slots in the survey, which rates the performance of 15-year-olds.

A 2008 statement from Singapore’s education ministry said a liberal-arts college would “inject more diversity into the publicly funded university sector.” Last year, 78 percent of Singapore’s graduates were from science, medicine, engineering, technology or business backgrounds, according to education ministry data.

“A Yale-style liberal-arts college, whose entire purpose is to get people to question and criticize everything, is very much a change,” said Ann Florini, director of the NUS Centre on Asia & Globalisation, and a fellow of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

‘Special Concern’

Yale President Richard C. Levin and Salovey said on Sept. 12 in an eight-page prospectus to Yale’s faculty that “of special concern in an international venture of this type is the degree of academic freedom for faculty and students.”

“I feel shame for the university,” said Victor Bers, a 66-year-old professor of classics who’s been at Yale since 1972. “It cannot be done with a reliable assurance of what we understand by academic freedom.”

In 2005 the U.K.’s University of Warwick said it scrapped plans to establish a campus in Singapore because of concern that academic freedom may not be sufficient.

Levin and Salovey said New York University’s law school, which has run a law program at NUS since 2007, shows that university instructors in Singapore “are free to teach any topic and share their perspectives in the classroom.”

An education ministry spokesman declined to answer e-mailed questions about how Singapore would benefit from a liberal-arts college. NUS President Tor Chorh Chuan also declined to comment. The government has said restrictions on public assembly and speeches are necessary to maintain social and religious harmony.

No Yale Degree

Degrees from the new college would be awarded through NUS, not Yale, while the U.S. institution would have authority to hire faculty and set curriculum and admission policies, the university said in the prospectus.

Yale officials are “trying to have their cake and eat it too,” said Garry Rodan, a professor at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, who has written or edited 10 books on Singapore and Southeast Asia. “They get the opportunity to develop and expand without having at the end of it to say that well, yes, it’s a Yale degree.”

The NUS administration has worked to address any qualms Yale administrators have about harming the U.S. university’s reputation, Salovey said.

“Our NUS colleagues are very sensitive to Yale’s needs and concerns and worries,” Salovey said. “There’s risk involved in any venture but we have a partner in NUS who is willing to work with us to reduce those risks.”

Yale in China

The NUS partnership isn’t Yale’s first venture in Asia. In 2001, it joined with Peking University to open a plant-genetics research center in Beijing. Yale also sends undergraduates to Peking University to study with Chinese students.

U.S. universities are also expanding in the Middle East. New York University opened a campus in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, with 150 students from 39 countries in September. Cornell University, based in Ithaca, New York, opened the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar in 2002. Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, has a Qatar campus that opened in 2008.

In Asia, where students typically concentrate on one subject, a liberal-arts curriculum such as Yale’s is seen as the “secret sauce” for creativity and analytical ability, said Ben Wildavsky, a fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, Missouri, and the author of “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World” (Princeton University Press, 2010).

‘Generous Allocation’

NUS and Singapore’s government will bear the costs of establishing and running the college, Yale said in a statement on its website.

Singapore’s government has approved a “very generous allocation to subsidize the college’s operating expenses,” Levin and Salovey said, without disclosing the amount. Tuition fees would be comparable to those at U.S. state universities, the officials said. In-state tuition averages $7,605 for the 2010-2011 academic year in the U.S., according to the College Board, a New York organization that promotes college attendance.

“If you’re trying to create a great university from scratch, the way you do it is to have a lot of money, to bring in all the talent you can, and through partnerships,” Wildavsky said.

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