Asia-Pacific News

With Opening Near, Yale Defends Singapore Venture

Tamar Lewin

Students have started to be admitted, faculty members have been hired, and construction has begun on the site that will become the home of Yale University ’s first joint college in its 300-year history.

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The first 150 students of the Yale-National University of Singapore College will begin a liberal arts curriculum, incorporating the study of East and West, on the existing N.U.S. campus in roughly one year. The new Yale-N.U.S. campus is expected to open in 2015.

The college could make a valuable contribution to higher education in Asia, some education experts say, but Yale has also received withering criticism for lending its name to an institution in Singapore, where freedom of assembly and association is restricted.

But some academic experts, while acknowledging concerns about freedoms in Singapore, say that many leading universities work in countries criticized for their human rights records, like China and certain Gulf states, and that most appear to operate without much government interference.

Yale is venturing into unknown territory with its Singapore undertaking, the first time it has been involved in establishing another institution.

Run in conjunction with Singapore’s oldest and largest university, Yale-N.U.S. will offer a four-year bachelor of arts with honors and a bachelor of science with honors.

Tuition per semester will range from 7,500 Singapore dollars for Singapore citizens to 15,000 dollars for foreign students, or from $6,000 to $12,000

Students will take a common curriculum in the first year, including courses on literature and humanities, philosophy and political thought, scientific inquiry and social institutions, before selecting a major.

Starting July 2013, students will spend a month in one of Yale’s residential colleges in New Haven, Connecticut, before starting classes in Singapore in August.

All students will complete a senior capstone project in their final year that will require them to conduct original research.

Pericles Lewis, the president of Yale-N.U.S., said that while American liberal arts colleges tended to focus on Western tradition — and that students who studied Asia often did so in isolation — the college’s students would study East and West side by side.

“Here you get a chance to study major works of Western and Asian civilizations in conversation with one another,” Dr. Lewis said, “so in that sense it’s a truly global curriculum.”

Students, all of whom will be required to live on campus, will also have the option of pursuing a combined undergraduate degree with law, with the law component taught through the N.U.S. law school, or combining an undergraduate degree with a masters in environmental management through Yale.

While some foreign institutions like New York University already offer joint programs in Singapore, few have provoked the heated criticism that Yale has regarding its decision to be involved in a country where not only is freedom of assembly and association restricted, but homosexual activity is banned.

Like all university students in Singapore, those at Yale-N.U.S. will not be permitted to take part in political protests or form groups supporting particular parties on campus.

An editorial last month in The Yale Daily News, a paper produced by undergraduates, criticized the administration for not detailing what constraints Singaporean students would face. It singled out Dr. Lewis and the university president, Richard Levin, stating that “neither president has offered a clear explanation of the new college’s policies, making it disappointingly clear that freedom is an afterthought to Yale’s venture into Singapore.”

Some of the strongest criticism has come from academics at Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, as well as from rights groups.

“Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

While the college acknowledges that students and staff members will have to abide by Singapore’s laws, Dr. Lewis said the school planned to have “robust political debates on campus.”

He said the institution had received guarantees from the country’s Ministry of Education that academic freedom would be protected. Yale-N.U.S.’s policy protects academic freedom for research, teaching and discussion on campus, and for publication of the resulting scholarship, and bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Some academics say the rising number of universities operating in countries like China and some Gulf states shows that it is possible to work relatively freely in societies criticized for a lack of academic freedom and human rights.

Anthony Welch , a professor of education at the University of Sydney who travels regularly to China, said that foreign universities operating there did not seem to encounter government interference. He added that he did not see a problem with such initiatives as long as there was “good will” on both sides.

“There’s obviously been a working relationship between the Singapore government, who is keen to encourage these partnerships, and Yale,” Dr. Welch said. “I think it could be quite a bright initiative, but we won’t really know until it’s up and running.”

Ravinder Sidhu , a senior lecturer at the School of Education at the University of Queensland who has studied transnational education partnerships, said that various U.S. universities had received generous grants and endowments from the Gulf states, “which have human rights records which are at least as concerning as that of Singapore.”

Nottingham University, in Britain, operates campuses in China and Malaysia, while Monash University of Australia also has a campus in Malaysia. “Both have to abide by and engage with the complex policy politics in both these contexts,” Dr. Sidhu said in an e-mail about those two schools.

“The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities — freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner,” she said.

“If this can happen without intervention from the state — all good,” she added.

Yang Rui, an associate professor of education at the University of Hong Kong, said that while concerns about academic freedom in Singapore were real, the new college could help broaden graduates’ perspectives.

He said that the college could potentially help make Singaporean society more tolerant and democratic, but that this could be difficult to achieve, and that its contribution to Asia’s higher education sector would depend on how freely it could operate.

Dr. Levin, the Yale president, said in a statement in July that Yale had entered its partnership with the National University of Singapore in “full awareness that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behavior of students and faculty.”

“We undertook this partnership to advance in Asia both the development of liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy encouraging critical inquiry,” he said. “These in themselves are objectives worthy of a great American institution of higher learning.”

As more universities open foreign branches, there have been concerns about whether overseas degrees are of the same quality as those from the main campus. Another sticking point is whether credits or degrees from satellite campuses are as recognized as those from the main one.

Yale-N.U.S. will operate as a stand-alone institution, and students will not be permitted to transfer to Yale in the United States. They may, however, spend as long as a year as an exchange student at Yale, and they will have access to universities that already have exchange programs with Yale and the National University of Singapore.

Prof. Lewis said the Yale-N.U.S. qualifications would be accredited in Singapore, but that the school would not go through the formal accreditation process in the United States.

The first round of recruitment attracted mostly Singaporean men who will finish their required military service next year. The next three rounds are expected to attract a greater variety of applicants including both Singaporean and international students.

The student population will be limited to 1,000. There will be no quota for international students, but Prof. Lewis expected that they would make up a “substantial minority,” with most international students coming from Asia.

More than 30 faculty members have been recruited from a field of 2,000 applicants, with staff coming from countries including Singapore, the United States, Britain, Australia and Malaysia.