Yale-NUS closure ‘nothing to do with academic freedom’

College’s defenders say its demise will dilute free expression, but education minister says its original critics opposed it for the same reason

September 17, 2021

Singapore’s education minister has scoffed at commentary linking the closure of Yale-NUS College with academic freedom concerns, saying that similar reservations around the college’s 2011 establishment had proved “unfounded”.

And while “economies of scale” had influenced the decision to end the prestigious partnership, Chan Chun Sing said the main motivation was to cultivate students’ “intellectual diversity”.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) intends to wind up Yale-NUS and merge it with a Harvard-inspired honours college, the University Scholars Programme (USP). In a lengthy address to parliament, Mr Chan defended the closure as an “important step” in the university’s “road map” to develop a “common curriculum with more flexible pathways and more interdisciplinary learning”.

Critics said the move would muzzle a student body seen by the government as too argumentative. University of Malaya political economist Terence Gomez said the episode exemplified “authoritarian” states’ discomfort with students who “challenge public policies”.

Professor Gomez said Yale-NUS had been established to “create a more thinking young Singaporean body”, after the country had “completely negated” the humanities in its drive for industrial prosperity. “And when this young Singaporean body became critical, what did they do? They decided to close this institution.”

Mr Chan acknowledged that Yale-NUS was considered a “paragon of academic freedom in Singapore”, despite initial qualms. In a 2012 resolution, Yale academics expressed concern at Singapore’s treatment of individual rights and urged the college “to uphold civil liberty and political freedom”.

Mr Chan said Yale-NUS’ academic freedom policies had been derived from practices in Singapore, not Connecticut. He said arts and social science faculties in NUS and other Singaporean universities had taught and researched “potentially sensitive and difficult topics” long before the college’s creation.

But academic freedom remains among the chief concerns of the scholars’ collective AcademiaSG. Its 9 September webinar on liberal education in Singapore discussed the “political screening” of university staff and state-imposed regulation of student activity.

“Will whatever autonomy students currently have at [Yale-NUS] be levelled down to conform with the rest of NUS?” the organisation’s editors ask in an article published after the webinar.

They say “conflicting accounts” of the process precipitating the merger decision raise questions about the governance of NUS and the Education Ministry’s influence in its operations. And they queried suggestions that the closure was financially motivated, given that the college had amassed a S$430 million (£232 million) endowment in just eight years. “Since it is a publicly funded institution, shouldn’t Singaporeans have access to better data on the college’s finances?”

In an 11 September article in The Straits Times, NUS president Tan Eng Chye said the endowment was still well short of its S$1 billion target. “Even with generous government seed funding and matching, the [Yale-NUS] endowment is much smaller than needed to sustain it,” he writes.

He says Yale-NUS had also proven much more resource-hungry than envisaged, with most students requiring financial aid. Long-term financial sustainability would necessitate higher tuition fees and “adjustments” to key characteristics such as the immersive small group learning approach.

Mr Chan said that while the government had always accepted that the Yale-NUS “unique education model” would be costly, its students absorbed more than twice as much public funding as their average NUS counterparts.

He said the government had supported the merger plan because it would expand interdisciplinary education and “because it will make an education much more affordable to many more NUS students”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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