Perfect pairings

January 1, 1990

Duke-NUS students

Anne Pakir explains that high global standing is a necessary but not sufficient aspect of the National University of Singapore’s team-ups

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.”
William Shakespeare, Othello

Four hundred years on, the Bard’s insights into “reputation” may strike a discordant note with intensely competitive 21st-century global universities. Their reputations have been carefully built up and are jealously guarded because world rankings are becoming popular barometers for students and researchers when choosing the universities in which to live and learn.

A great reputation is hard to build: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, indisputably the jewels in the British academic crown, have had eight centuries or so to establish their supremacy. But with higher education becoming a fast-growing global industry, there has been a vast increase in the number of reputable institutions challenging the traditional elite.

Forging global academic partnerships has become an important part of institutional reputation-building: against the backdrop of a fiercely competitive sector, the economic case for collaboration is clear, as universities seek to maximise their output and international visibility without overstretching their resources.

To identify the right partners, the proxy is often university reputation. Granted, this can be subjective and intangible, but it certainly has a role to play in decision-making.

From the National University of Singapore’s experience of establishing global partnerships with top universities across the world (including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, the University of Cambridge in the UK, and Peking and Tsinghua universities in China), reputation is important. However, the success of such collaboration is contingent on much more than that: clear academic complementarity and a shared vision that something distinctive can be created are crucial, too.

In two innovative cases, the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore and the Yale-NUS College, the starting point was not reputation. Our initial questions were: “What new value can we add to the university experience?”; “What are each university’s unique strengths and how can the whole be greater than the sum of its parts?”; “How do we collaborate successfully?”

Duke University’s reputation for excellence in graduate medicine and Yale University’s standing as one of the world’s best liberal arts institutions piqued the National University’s interest in establishing deeply structured partnerships with them.

The beginnings of the Duke-NUS project can be traced to 2000, when the Singapore government launched an ambitious Biomedical Sciences Initiative designed to make the country Asia’s biomedical hub.

Duke was approached to set up a graduate medical school to train clinician-scientists who could bridge the gap between the ward and the laboratory. In 2005, the National University established its second medical school (in addition to the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine) with Duke to pioneer US-style graduate medical education in Asia.

The collaboration draws on Duke’s medical excellence and our outstanding resources, including rich medical research potential (especially regarding Asian diseases and phenotypes) that our American partner can leverage. The Duke curriculum is distinctive, even in the US, with a full year devoted to research (an attractive proposition from our standpoint). Strong support from Duke’s leadership as well as substantial funding from the Singapore government and donors were instrumental in bringing the idea to fruition.

Today, Duke-NUS is an internationally acclaimed centre for education and research, attracting the world’s top students and distinguished faculty.

In 2011, the National University partnered Yale to launch Yale-NUS, Singapore’s first liberal arts college. The factors that enabled this partnership include a shared vision, strong rapport between the two institutional presidents and trust built over a history of collaboration that began with faculty exchange, summer programmes, joint research and networking activities.

Perhaps most importantly, both partners bring to the collaboration critical and complementary strengths: Yale offers leading-edge expertise and experience with liberal arts education; the National University provides a strong record of educational innovation in a dynamic part of the world.

Yale-NUS presents a unique pedagogy and programme. Rather than merely transplanting the US liberal arts approach, the partnership’s curriculum, designed specifically for the college, exploits its Asian location and redefines education for the 21st century.

The Yale-NUS vision – “A community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world” – will certainly play a role in shaping and influencing the way liberal arts colleges will develop in Asia as the centre of gravity in higher education shifts to the region.

This new model of liberal arts education, one that integrates Western and Eastern perspectives updated for today’s world, resonates with many: faculty, students, supporters and donors.

The National University’s deeply structured partnerships with Duke and Yale present it with unique opportunities to leapfrog on to the top table of global universities. Through the synergies between the university and its partners – bodies that share the same vision and culture of innovation, and offer a distinctive value proposition to the world – Singapore’s top institution has benefited hugely.

Anne Pakir is director of the International Relations Office, National University of Singapore.

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