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Yale-NUS College did not reach fundraising target ‘through no fault of its own’, transition to new college will reduce costs: Chan Chun Sing

SINGAPORE: Yale-NUS College has not reached its fundraising target “through no fault of its own”, and the transition to the new college will reduce costs "to some extent", said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Monday (Sep 13). 

This was a “relevant consideration” in the decision to close Yale-NUS College and merge it with the University Scholars Programme (USP) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), but not the “main motivation for the change”, he added. 

NUS announced in August that the two programmes would be combined into a single new college from 2022, and that Yale-NUS’ 2021 intake would be its last.

Students of the new college will read a new common curriculum adapted from “the best of both the USP and Yale-NUS foundations” enhanced with science, technology, engineering and mathematics elements, NUS said at the time. 

"When we first decided to set up YNC (Yale-NUS College), we knew that it would cost more," said Mr Chan, responding to parliamentary questions from Members of Parliament.

The cost of the education for a Yale-NUS student is more than double that of a humanities or science student in NUS, Mr Chan said, adding that both tuition fees and government funding are “more than double”. 

“But we accepted this because we saw value in having a liberal arts college in our tertiary education system,” he told Parliament.

The college had hoped to raise more than S$300m to reach an endowment fund size of about S$1 billion with government matching and investment returns, he added. 

“This would then have reduced the burden on the annual operating income of fees and government subsidies,” said Mr Chan. 

“YNC has done its utmost in raising funds, but through no fault of its own has not reached this target. Transitioning to the new college will give us economies of scale, and reduce costs to some extent.

“This will be an important consideration, but not the main motivation for the change.” 

With the “benefits of scale”, education in the new college can be “much more inclusive, affordable and flexible”, said Mr Chan. 

MOE COMMITTED TO SUPPORTING NEW COLLEGE

The new college would offer a wider choice of majors and minors compared to Yale-NUS, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas, he added. 

“With closer integration with the wider NUS ecosystem, all NUS students will also be able to benefit from and (have) access to the new college’s facilities, resources, and community.” 

The Education Ministry (MOE) is “committed” to supporting the new college, said Mr Chan. 

“We expect that the tuition fees and costs per student will be lower than that at YNC, in keeping with the vision for the new college to be a more inclusive, affordable and accessible model of education," he added.

Mr Chan addressed concerns about whether NUS can “deliver this enhanced ambition” and whether the move will impact its overall standing. 

“There is no reason to believe why a university like NUS, which has grown in strength and reputation over the years, cannot continue to achieve great things.” 

Responding to a supplementary question from MP Patrick Tay (PAP-Pioneer) about how financial sustainability was factored into the decision, Mr Chan said that when the college was first established, the Government recognised that education there would cost more because of its "smaller size and unique education model". 

“But we were prepared to invest in building the new facilities for YNC, and we accepted this because we saw value in having a liberal arts college in our tertiary education system,” he added. 

Yale-NUS is more costly “on a recurrent basis”, said the Education Minister. 

In 2020, MOE provided about S$48 million to the college in operating grants per year for its about 1,000 students, he added. 

“On a per-student basis, this was more than double that of a humanities and science student in NUS on average, reflective of the higher costs in education,” said Mr Chan. 

Beyond the operating grants, MOE has also provided capital funding for Yale-NUS’ infrastructure and matched donations to its endowment fund, he added. 

When NUS consulted MOE on its plan to merge Yale-NUS College and USP, the ministry was supportive because it would make education “much more affordable” to many more NUS students. 

It was also in line with MOE’s push for institutes of higher learning to “expand their interdisciplinary approach to education”, Mr Chan said.

“Merging YNC and USP to form the new college therefore allows NUS to combine the best elements of both sides and to achieve economies of scale, to allow us to scale this experience in many more students in part or in full across NUS," he added.

DECISION-MAKING PROCESS

Mr Chan also addressed concerns about the decision-making process and questions about why students and staff of Yale-NUS were not consulted. 

“NUS did not do so because the decision involved discussions between the senior leadership of two universities, and with their respective boards, on sensitive issues of strategy and finance," he said.

Instead, after the “broad parameters” were settled, NUS wanted to give the maximum amount of time for the transition to occur and for stakeholders to be involved in working through "transition issues", said Mr Chan. 

The launch of the new college is an “important move” that has implications for many stakeholders, including the Yale-NUS students, parents, faculty and staff, said the Education Minister. 

“And I understand the sadness and sense of loss and uncertainty they may feel, especially for those who have played a part in building up YNC over the past decade,” he added. 

Describing the decision-making process of closing the college, Mr Chan said that NUS initiated discussions with Yale University in early July. 

“Yale acknowledged NUS’ vision to bring together both YNC and the USP into a new college that would not bear Yale’s name,” he added. 

Yale-NUS leadership was informed in the same month, said Mr Chan. The NUS Board of Trustees endorsed the decision in early-August, and the Yale-NUS College Governing Board endorsed the transition plans in late-August. 

The first announcement to the public was made on Aug 27. 

In July, the timing of the announcement was also discussed with Yale and “jointly determined”, said Mr Chan. 

“While the partnership would only end in 2025, both parties felt that the responsible thing to do was to announce it early rather than to hold back. 

“It would have been bad faith to delay the announcement and continue to admit students who would not be able to complete their education in YNC, or to continue to hire faculty beyond this juncture.” 

This was why NUS made the announcement in August after the Yale-NUS Governing Board endorsed the "broad transition approach", said Mr Chan. 

“This allowed faculty and staff the maximum time, between now and 2025, to work through the details of the transition,” he added. 

Yale-NUS' final cohort in 2021 would also have the full four years to complete their undergraduate studies at the college, said Mr Chan. 

The Education Minister also addressed concerns about how the move affects the standing of the Yale-NUS degree, as well as how the merger will affect current students and staff. 

All current students will graduate with the same degree as the students before them - a Yale-NUS degree that is awarded by NUS - Mr Chan said. 

Beyond 2025, NUS will continue to provide “supporting documentation” to explain the context of Yale-NUS and what its degree conveys, as well as provide letters of recommendation or referees if needed by alumni, he added. 

“NUS and Yale are both globally renowned universities which are well-recognised by employers, including the public sector, and postgraduate institutions. I am confident that the YNC degree will continue to be highly valued, and its past and future graduating cohorts will remain in good standing, even beyond 2025.” 

Current students in Yale-NUS will continue to have access to the full range of majors and minors currently offered by the college until 2025, the Education Minister added. 

“I know that many YNC students are actively involved in student organisations and look forward to a fulfilling campus life during their time at college,” said Mr Chan. 

“The establishment of the new college will open new possibilities for students of YNC, USP and the new college to interact and collectively participate in active and inclusive student life in the next few years.” 

No faculty and staff will be made redundant from the merger, he said, adding that NUS has committed to honouring all existing employment contracts. 

Yale-NUS leadership has also been engaging faculty members to “hear their concerns” and discuss possible options for them after 2025, said Mr Chan. 

“I know some students and parents may nevertheless have lingering concerns, and we respect the preferences of those who may wish to consider other options. NUS and YNC will engage them and provide assistance where they can.” 

FUTURE OF LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION 

Mr Chan also responded to questions about the future of liberal arts education in Singapore, and the impact of the merger on academic freedom. 

NUS is “building on the foundations” laid by Yale-NUS and USP, as well as lessons from the collaboration with Yale University. 

“It wants to make the distinctive features of education in YNC and USP more inclusive and more accessible. The new college will maintain the spirit of independent inquiry and inclusivity that characterise YNC, USP and NUS,” said Mr Chan. 

As for the merger’s impact on academic freedom in Singapore, there were “similar concerns about a perceived lack of academic freedom” when Yale-NUS was established, said the Education Minister. 

“They proved unfounded. In fact, few believed then that YNC would live up to its ambition. Even fewer would own it,” he said. 

“It is perhaps ironic and a testimony to NUS and YNC’s efforts all these years that YNC is now seen as a paragon of academic freedom in Singapore.”

Yale-NUS’ current policies on academic freedom were framed by taking reference from NUS’ practices and have “remained unchanged”, he added. 

The faculties of arts and social sciences in NUS and the other autonomous universities have “a long history” of teaching and research, including on "potentially sensitive and difficult topics", even before Yale-NUS was established, said Mr Chan. 

“It would be grossly unfair to faculty members in NUS and other autonomous universities to suggest that their teaching or research is in any way less rigorous, or of lower quality, or less free than that of YNC faculty," added Mr Chan.

In a supplementary question, MP Shawn Huang (PAP-Jurong) asked Mr Chan how he would define success for NUS and its students “given its vision for its interdisciplinary education”. 

“To me, in time to come, I will consider it a success if NUS produced quality graduates that are much more global in their perspective, able to connect the East and the West, the North and the South.

"That these students will be able to provide unique solutions in context to the challenges that Singapore faces and if possible, to make a contribution to the rest of the world." 

NUS will continue to be successful if it "continues to remain humble” and "learn from the best in the world", while being confident to “chart out its own way forward”, he added. 

“NUS is not just copying from the best in the world, but in the process, creates something new, creates something better,” said Mr Chan.

As a university, NUS should also help to reinforce Singapore’s standing in the world, said the Education Minister. 

“Because we stand for openness, integration, inclusivity. That we provide solutions in context for the world, just as we provide for ourselves," he added.

Source: CNA/hw

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