a community of singaporeans

UNSW closure – some tough questions

Posted by theonlinecitizen on May 24, 2007

By Choo Zheng Xi

A friend of mine (let’s call him James) made the decision a few months ago to enroll in the University of New South Wales (UNSW) campus in Singapore.

He had taken a gamble and given up his place in NUS’ Business faculty for a chance to be part of an internationally renowned University, finding the local University culture stifling.

Little did he expect to be left with nothing but an unaffordable promise to study in Australia. When I tried speaking to James, he was almost too despondent to comment.

By June, all that will be left of UNSW’s presence in Singapore is going to be the shell of a half finished campus in Changi, and a host of unanswered questions.

Who’s going to pick up the bill?

While the Channel News Asia report on UNSW’s pullout tried to end on an optimistic note (‘EDB says it will continue to pursue these areas and strengthen its relationship with UNSW’), there is no mistaking the fact that this particular relationship has ended in a complete breakdown. As anyone with even a basic knowledge of business deals would know, when contractual relationships breakdown, there is a price to be paid.

Did UNSW break its contractual obligations by leaving Singapore in the lurch? If indeed a condition of the contract was broken by UNSW, Singapore stands to recover the amount it expected to reap from the contract. At minimum, it should be able to recover the sums paid out in wooing UNSW.

In relation to the former amount, estimates were that our economy was to have reaped $500 million a year in direct spending from the campus. As to how much Singapore actually lost in wooing UNSW, EDB has so far kept mum about how much taxpayer’s money has been spent.

All this speculation is completely academic, sadly, as there is absolutely no information on the contract terms between the parties. Hence we don’t even have an idea what the terms of this contract were, let alone how much of it the taxpayer funded EDB can recover.

End the recurring nightmare: rethink our global schoolhouse push

This brouhaha seems uncannily familiar: Johns Hopkins closed its Singapore biomedical facility in July 2006 in acrimony, and English University Warwick voted not to set up a Singaporean campus in October 2005. UNSW’s pullout is probably the ‘unkindest cut of them all’ to Singapore’s effort to be an education hub: it was trumpeted with pride as our saving grace back when Warwick turned us down.

The Channel News Asia report on UNSW’s closure said the EDB was still optimistic that it could reach its goal of 150,000 international students by 2015. This means it needs to make up the shortfall of 70,000 students from its current tally of 80,000 international students. This is pure fantasy: the arithmetic simply doesn’t add up.

Consider that Warwick (if it had set up campus as planned by EDB in 2008) was slated to bring in a pool of 10,000 students by 2022. UNSW was slated to bring in 15,000 students by 2020. Even assuming both the Warwick and UNSW projects had succeeded, we’d still fall considerably short of the 150,000 target in 2015.

Meeting the target would have been premised on drawing similar large university projects. With the failure of UNSW on grounds of poor response, how many more jewels in the Singaporean education crown can EDB bring in? More importantly, what is the cost of these wild goose chases?

More worrying than not fulfilling this unrealistic target is what might happen in our government’s attempt to meet it. Small and unreliable private schools with little oversight might start sprouting up, and might even receive government encouragement to grow for the sake of achieving a EDB’s mandated target.

The consequences of such dubious educational outfits were seen in June 2006, when private school Ritz Everton closed down leaving 50 of its students without redress. In 2005 alone, there were 430 complaints against private schools. It takes little imagination to see how this will exponentially increase if private schools frantically started sprouting up to fill the 150,000 target.

For every private school that closes, Singapore’s reputation for impeccable regulation and competence takes a hit. For every UNSW that uproots there are hundreds of students like James left in the lurch, and innumerable amounts of taxpayer’s money wasted.

Let’s start sensibly reassessing our educational hub aspirations. We should be wary lest the fuel that fires the engines of our economic growth turns out to be our student’s wallets.


Channel News Asia report on UNSW closure

Statistics for complaints against private schools

Closure of Ritz Everton Academy

Warwick votes against Singapore campus

About the author: Zheng Xi is a law undergrad at the NUS and is also co-editor of theonlinecitizen.


14 Responses to “UNSW closure – some tough questions”

  1. Slow said

    Post-seconary education has always been a free market in Singapore. There have always been literally hundreds of diploma and degree courses offered by private schools in Singapore. An ex-colleague once counted over 30 MBA courses alone!

    As for unreliable schools, they have always been there and there will always be new ones. The competition also forces them to play on the edge – when I was working in the sector, a third of the fees went to the lecturers and another third for training premises – leaving a third for administrative fees, certification fees by the overseas university, and profit.

    If you want the government to play big brother and regulate the schools, you’re going to have to face the fact that costs will go up and entry standards will too. Traditionally, most private schools keep costs to a minimum (the pay is bad for anybody except fresh grads) and try to keep the course length to a minimum because the longer and more expensive the course is, the harder for working people to complete the course.

    Regulation of private schools also means that if you fail the government system like I did, there will no longer be a affordable private second chance to get qualifications within Singapore. Only if you can afford to fly off to Australia or America, can you get a second chance in life. I have quite a few friends who failed out of school but came back through your much despised unregulated private school system. Some even made it to government jobs!

    Your choice: total government control over education or continuing to allow private enterprise to give second chances.

    Slow the Singapore ‘Failure’

  2. singapooooor said

    Malaysia has the below list of domestic campuses of foreign universities and private university colleges. One need to ask why Singapore Tak Boleh while Malaysia Boleh.

    Foreign universities, Malaysia campus
    Curtin University of Technology Sarawak Campus
    Monash University Malaysia Campus
    Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus
    University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

    University Colleges
    Asia Pacific University College of Technology & Innovation (UCTI)
    Binary University College
    University College
    INTI International University College (INTI-UC)
    International University College Of Technology Twintech (IUCTT)
    Kuala Lumpur Infrastructure University College (KLIUC)
    Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology
    Sunway University College
    Taylor’s University College
    University College Sedaya International (UCSI)
    Cosmopoint International College University
    University College of Technology & Management Malaysia (KUTPM)

  3. Boboshoot said

    Dear Slow,

    I agree with you that there are many advantages of having private schools to complement the government driven “straight-jacket” education system.

    However in this case I think the theonlinecitizen highlights a valid point about the risk of having too little supervision on private schools, in the EDB’s relentless pursuit of certain milestone targets.

    There are cases of private schools closing down and not fulfilling their service obligations after fees have been paid.

    And some dubious “schools” have used their licenses to get student passes for pretty girls from China and Vietnam to study the art of entertaining guests in KTVs.

    Now the internationally reknown UNSW closes after less than one semester – have the students paid one semester of fees for nothing? You either have a degree or no degree – having one quarter of a degree is worth nothing. If the students can’t go to Australia to continue their studies or transfer their credits somewhere, it is literally money down the drain. What if a foreign student came to Singapore to study at UNSW, and his/her family had saved up just enough to send the person here?

    And the thing about the education sector (as compared to some other consumer goods and services) is that quite substantial fees are usually paid upfront before any service is rendered. In Singapore we have pretty strict rules for buying and selling cars, houses, unit trusts and insurance. What about education?

    So while we want to build an “education hub”, while we want to make it easier for private educational institutions to set up shop and while we want to make it easier for foreign students to study here – Surely, some “QC” is in order.



  4. Krokus said


    You said – Your choice: total government control over education or continuing to allow private enterprise to give second chances.

    This is typical false choice fallacy much like Bush’s idiotic “you are for us or you are against us”. We can have some government egulation AND thriving private enterprise… We can have good and smart government intervention and UNSW is one such case. It is new, it needs nurturing. Why did the EDB reject the scaled down version at least for now since it has just started? Of course the UNSW has miscalculated by the government has committed a big booboo on this one. Now, other universities would be shaking in their pants. If more effort to save UNSW is done, maybe, UNSW would be able to make a more dignified exit in a couple of years… that is if things do not pick up which they could if there is an initial scale down and more efforts at taking in students…very possible as more than 700 did apply and only 150 was accepted in the first place. Shame on EDB and the Singapore government! How can we seriously say that we want to be an education hub if at the first sign of difficulty we abandon ship?


  5. Norman Tan said

    Another one bites the dust!

    Singapore’s high cost structure & stagnant domestic economy kills off any hope of becoming an “educational hub”. After the John Hopkins Hospital and Warwick University hubris, this is becoming so predictable. What’s next? IR? F1?

    First, UNSW $26k-$29k p.a. fees are beyond most Singaporean families which should be UNSW’s main captive market. Without this, UNSW would need more foreign students to make the shortfall. This is indicative of the domestic income disparity in Spore. So what if the powers to be get paid their global salaries. All their grandiose plans fall to dust on implementation! In time, the failures would be so glaring it would be embarrassing!

    Second, most foreign students prefer to go to the real McCoy i.e. Kensington campus than UNSW Spore as there is virtually no difference in fees & living costs. However, the quality of life in Australia vis-a-vis Spore is vastly different. No surprise then the intake is 50% below the expected number. UNSW can’t meet the 20k target in 2020 with such an inauspicious start!

    Third, campus infrastructure in Changi South will be a white elephant. Without the attraction of a brandname varsity, it is a waste of taxpayer’s money! The use of an existing school building or the old Bukit Timah campus would have been more realistic.

    In short, whoever in EDB that thought out this business collaboration ought be taken out & shot by a firing squad! Any good business planner would have seen through these problems.


  6. Krokus said


    I agree. I think some heads need to role. Who in EDB is responsible for this fiasco? The EDB lame duck lady named Aw who looked nervous (she was pouring some water to drink) at the televised press-conference has to answer some of these tough questions. I think EDB must be more transparent in the process they employ to get UNSW here and the ones at the helm of this project should be kicked out! I wonder how much Aw is drawing… these lame ducks are paid so well and yet come up with little more than shit!


  7. CZX said

    Redefining educational success

    I’m all for private schools, but I think we need to reassess the role we want them to play in our educational system. We need to rethink our mental paradigms about education before we can restart the private school debate in a meaningful fashion.

    Our primary premise is that private schools are still a ‘second chance’, the implication being we expect them to have lower standards. If we embark on our ‘global schoolhouse’ policy with this mentality, we’re setting ourselves up to create a ‘global dumpinground’. If someone flunks out of the ‘mainstream’ O level/A level routes, how is letting them do exactly the same course at an exponentially higher price going to solve his problem?

    We need to focus on growing the diversity of educational methodologies Singapore can offer, not create ever increasing ways of doing the same thing. The key is to create choice and diversity, not water down quality to hit bureacratic targets.

    At the heart of this problem is an assumption that underlines the Singaporean system: that the only route to success is based on scholastic merit. Educational success is defined by scholastic merit: we automatically prize academic or professional degrees over vocational ones.

    Until we redifine success in education, we’re never going to be a world class schoolhouse.

  8. FreedomNotFiefdom said

    is being safe, clean and having good infrastructure the only keys to attracting the best things in life to come here?

    China attracted the best in the world to flock there. Is China safer, cleaner and ideal in terms of infrastructure? Is the more viable economy a bigger draw?

  9. quitacet said

    Increased competition in the higher education market will lead to lower costs and better quality for consumers. One important barrier to entry is the high degree of state subsidy for the local universities, who like any other protected industry, are less subject to the rigors of the market. It is little wonder that UNSW was unable to compete when local university tuition is artificially lower.

    The appropriate policy response may be a variant of school vouchers, where the subsidy on higher education goes directly to university students, who are then able to apply the vouchers to their designated school of choice, be it a local university, foreign entrant, or overseas university. This of course would not apply to nonresidents, but AFAIK nonresidents do not enjoy the subsidies on local universities either so there would not be any distorted incentive structure with regard to them in the first place. This would level the playing field.

    As for the idea of the education hub, perhaps they have underestimated that the primary draw of an overseas education is the idea of going Somewhere Else.

  10. at82 said

    I would really like to hear PY’s thoughts on this. Hopes he comments here.

  11. […] credit: The Online Citizen “The learning point is that we have to continue working very hard. Truly, with every […]

  12. Y K Lim said

    It is another sad and damming episode that this should happen with a reknowned University like UNSW. With all the intelligent people on the Board of UNSW and all the intelligent people in EDB and MOE, such things can still go wrong.

    It is especially embarrassing for Singapore and frustrating for the students that were left in the lurch.

    The whole closure episode was NOT at all done in a graceful and proper manner, there were no advance notice either by UNSW or EDB or MOE. One cannot blame the university for closing shop if the host country is too rigid in its policies.

    Singapore is proud to be till date one of the safest countries in the world, thanks to the vision of dedicated leaders of the past and some of the present. Going forward, it is worrisome as it appears that nothing matters so long there is “BIG BUCKS” to be made or at least “think so”.

    Big fanfare is the order of the day when it is launched, but surprisingly the very same people involved in the fanfare shy away when something goes wrong.

    Grow up policy makers, yes, we have some very intelligent policy makers but there are signs that some are proving to be “INTELLIGENT IDIOTS”.

    Every Ministry seems to be driven by only one factor “$$$$$$”.They seem to try to outdo one another for that. Yes, we need to look into the “$$$$$$” but lets do our homework well and always “ANTICIPATE” what can go wrong. What looks good on paper may turn out to be a disaster on the ground.

    (An example, ask an uneducated experienced vehicle mechanic to strip an engine part and compare to a degree holder in vehicle mechanic and you will be surprise that the uneducated one does it in a jiffy because he is “street smart” NOT book smart hence the phrase “There are certain things they don’t teach in Harvard”).

    It is hope that valuable lessons be learned as a result of these “Boo Boo”.
    Let’s not be too arrogant and spend some time digesting others views even the not too INTELLIGENT PEOPLE who may just touch on a critical issue and in the process alert the INTELLIGENT policy makers.

    No efforts should be spared to assists the students that were left in the lurch and all parties to really acknowledge their mistakes,improve on it and move on.

  13. […] newspaper paints a different picture on why the EDB has failed in their multi-million venture with UNSW, shifting the blame squarely on the university. It paints a very good picture of which honest and […]

  14. talk-the-Thought said

    I agtree with singapooooor for the comment on May 24th, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Well said!

    There are so many Malaysian going down under for education. So much so that these Uni have been flourishing in malaysia for years! There are even at least 2 Australian institution in such remote Sarawak!!! How do they Malaysia Boleh but Singapore-tak-boleh? I believe we always think others think the same like us…Singapore is safe….This doesnt sell well to our 3rd world neighbour cos safety is not an issue since its more dangerous from where they came front.I understand quite a numnber of foreign student from the region, esp indonesia willing to go to remote boring dangerous sarawak!

    Maybe, EDB believe should not drum up all the shangri-la like city-state. Basically, you are selling a product similar to what our neighbour sells. No 3rd world consumer will go Orchard shopping mall to buy something that Chinatown also sell but at a cheaper price!

    EDB got this wrong. EDB or some similar agency, I believe, also got the Creative product wrong(correct me if I’m wrong) sometime back. EDB and those ‘scholar’ people that the gov’t paid highly, seems to be paying a huge error and at an alarming rate!

    We seems to be trailing our neighbour thesre days instead of the other way round! Are we running out of idea, concept, strategic move?

    Is it time to be humble instead of arrogant? Is it time of crying foul when times gets tough? Is it time to stop telling our competitor ‘lets win-win’ when our competitor knows we running out of trump card?

    Honestly, sometime, I wonder if the decision maker are in this world! They seems to be disconnect with reality and with the people!

    I bet, both IR & F1 will be in most people radar. Every blip will sent the people more headache. Ever failure potentially will affect the GST or taxes to afford any failure!

    Stay tune to the ground and not at cloud nine!This is 2007 not 30 years before.

    Mat salleh Oh-leh!

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