Singapore’s aspirations to become an education and knowledge hub

Author: Ravinder Sidhu, University of Queensland

By maintaining that “people are its most precious resource,” Singapore has made a name for itself as a country committed to human resources development. The city-state has invested in research infrastructure and corresponding budgets to transform itself into a teaching and knowledge hub. But the future of international higher education in Singapore is far from guaranteed.

The last decade of the 20th century was a performative moment in the globalization of higher education. Many English-speaking universities have increased their cross-border activities by entering into “mutually beneficial” transnational partnerships with universities elsewhere. These partnerships have consolidated their neoliberal references and allowed them to cede responsibility for fiscal and operational issues to these transnational partners.

Singapore has been riding this wave of globalization, pioneering a new form of cross-border education this involved funding and leveraging the global reputation of a group of “world-class” universities. At the same time, capacity building policies have been introduced to push local universities to surpass others in global rankings. New institutions such as Singapore Management University and Singapore University of Technology and Design have been established, building on the tutelage of selected US universities. While policymakers looked to foreign institutions to make Singapore a ‘knowledge-based economy’, government policy reflected an earlier development plan where multinationals have been supported to drive the industrialization of Singapore.

Three decades later, how have the aspirations of Singapore’s education hub been? INSEAD Business School, an original ‘world class’ guest, remains firmly anchored in Singapore and two thriving medical schools have emerged through transnational partnerships with Duke University and Imperial College.

But one of the first victims of this surge was the Australian University of New South Wales, which announced its closure in 2007 after just one semester. After 14 years, the Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business moved to Hong Kong to position itself closer to an expected Chinese market. New York University’s Tisch School of Arts arrived in 2007 and closed its operations in 2015. An important surprise announcement arrived in 2021 – Yale-NUS College, a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, will cease to operate after 2025.

The common thread connecting many transnational educational partnerships interrupted concerns sustainability, profitability and scalability. Partner institutions seeking global visibility ultimately face the issue of sustainability as they strive to increase their profiles and provide excellent learning and student experiences. Finance aside, a relocated campus model based on center-periphery relationships is not viable. Models that rely on ephemeral and aerial encounters can work against mutually respectful relationships, complicating the prospects for joint research and curriculum development.

There was no shortage of comments on illiberal positions taken by host countries on academic freedom, freedom of expression and association, labor rights and minority rights. This review should extend to the conduct of partner universities that are embroiled in practices of ‘academic capitalism‘. He courted controversial individuals Where Governments, the fantasy of developing a “world-class” institution can lead universities to lose sight of their moral and intellectual responsibilities. The business practices carried out by universities in the name of knowledge-based innovation also contribute to the endurance colonial logical.

So, what awaits the Singapore Student and Knowledge Center after COVID-19? Migration data, including data on international students, is not released by the government, making it difficult to fully analyze current and future demand. In a parliamentary speech in 2008, the Minister of Trade and Industry said Singapore had attracted 86,000 international students and was on track to meet its target of 150,000 international students by 2020. Following the electoral backlash from 2011, this policy target was quietly revised. Currently, the number of international students in public universities is capped at 10 percent of the national student body.

Developments in other destination countries will play a role in shaping Singapore’s higher education aspirations. The prospects for a fully digitalized international higher education system remain uncertain. Some things cannot be digitized satisfactorily; students everywhere desire for conviviality and community. The closure of Australia’s borders due to a pandemic, now entering its second year, could steer students to a regional study destination like Singapore. And perceptions of xenophobia in traditional Western study destinations (as well as trade and geopolitical rivalries linked to China) may redirect student mobility away from countries like Australia and the United States.

If that were to happen, Singapore could be well placed to recruit regional international students and researchers. Fully vaccinated international students have been allowed to return to Singapore to begin or resume their studies in person. But more recent public health concerns have prompted the government to take a more conservative approach to recruiting international students. The city-state’s handling of the pandemic received early praise, but its plans to “live with the virus” were hampered by the highly transmissible Delta strain.

The academic quality of its universities and the strong state support for research and development activities suggest that Singapore will continue to consolidate its reputation as a hub of education and knowledge. Its “Temasek model” – investing in foreign institutions and foreign talent – will need to be recalibrated to address an “emotional divide” between citizens and the ruling elite. If Singaporeans are seen to be displaced from public universities, marginalized from employment opportunities, and deprived of a social safety net, they are unlikely to welcome international students in the future.

Ravinder Sidhu is Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland.

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