Returning to Singapore

Despite some high-profile failures, Australian and American universities seek students and outposts in the prosperous city-state.

February 14, 2008

Australia’s mixed academic fortunes in Southeast Asia look set to improve this year when the country’s Murdoch University expands its presence in a region also enjoying unprecedented attention by many leading American universities.

The ambitious Perth-based university, which has established a satellite operation in the city-state offering undergraduate degrees across 15 disciplines, is the first major Australian college to open new doors in the region since the high-profile collapse of another Australian campus in the city-state last summer prompted a wave of institutional withdrawals from Asia. The new center will be administered in partnership with the locally based Singapore Manufacturing Federation School of Management.

Once up and running, the Murdoch International Study Centre expects to enroll as many as 2,000 undergraduates across a variety of subjects, including commerce, environmental studies, information technology media, and marketing.

The programs will be based on the university's existing curriculum, taught by instructors from both Australia and Singapore, and aimed at older Asian students looking to complement their work experience with additional study.

Gary Martin, deputy vice chancellor in charge of international affairs at Murdoch, says the university decided to embark on the venture because of the success it had enjoyed since 2004 in allowing its new partner in Singapore to offer a number of its courses.

The move signaled what Martin hails as “a new model” for the recruitment of international students by any of the dozens of Australian universities currently active in the region, most of which typically offer specific degrees through a variety of partner institutions rather than a slew of programs through an individual partner. About a third of Australia’s 200,000 international students are currently enrolled offshore through such arrangements.

But he adds, “We are going to be careful.”

Last July, another much-vaunted “new model” -- Australia’s first full-fledged campus abroad -- spectacularly crashed owing millions of dollars in Singapore less than a year after opening to glowing notices in a country whose aggressive recruitment of international students had until then largely been seen as a limitless success story. With a population only slightly greater than metropolitan New York and just 40 universities to its national name, Australia has over the past two decades managed to attract nearly one-third the number of fee-paying international students as the United States.

Nevertheless, UNSW Asia, which was administered by the University of New South Wales, in Sydney and had expected to attract 15,000 students over the coming decade, closed its doors after just two semesters. It had managed to attract just 150 students to its relatively high-priced programs.

In the wake of the closure, dozens of other Australian-administered programs in the Asian region were significantly downsized or terminated altogether. Some of those operations wilted in the shadow of the UNSW collapse, but others were forced to withdraw as a result of more stringent auditing standards instituted by the Australian government to ensure offshore arrangements meet the same standards as Australian-based higher education.

In the case of Singapore, however, another factor at play against the Australians has been the rapidly expanding presence of foreign universities offering programs and collaborating with the city-state’s established universities. Barely a decade ago, American institutions had virtually no presence in the region at all, but, as part of the republic’s drive to establish itself as a leading host country for international higher-education, the roll has since increased to include more than a dozen leading universities, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Duke and Stanford Universities, mainly operating in partnership with the Singapore's established universities.

More problematically, Johns Hopkins University also opened a medical education and research facility in collaboration with the National University of Singapore in 1999; that deal collapsed in 2006.

Among the most recent arrivals to plant the American flag in Southeast Asian soil has been New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which last fall began offering its master of fine arts degree to international students in Singapore. Tisch Asia currently enrolls 30 students, a number it expects to climb tenfold over the coming decade, as it settle into its new premises — next door to the temporary accommodation where the ill-starred UNSW Asia used to be housed.

“We were shocked, really shocked,” admits the Asian school’s president, Pari Shirazi, reflecting on the high-profile collapse that coincided with Tisch’s first semester in Singapore. “We still don’t know exactly what happened — but, obviously, we had been very excited to have next to us an institution that was going to add to the energy of our campus.”

While the administrators of the recent Australian venture may have discovered their international ambitions were not financially feasible, the New York operation does not expect to be similarly roiled. “We’re not here to make money, but because we have something to offer the world” said Shirazi. He added that NYU was spurred by having reached its stateside capacity to enroll foreign students, along with the difficulties some of those students had experienced navigating America’s tightened student-visa restrictions after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Unlike many hopeful Australian institutions looking to cut a new Southeast Asian presence, too, Tisch’s emphasis on the arts appeared to guarantee it a “comfortable niche” for the foreseeable future in a republic offering comparatively little in the way of master’s level arts education.

That sounds like what Murdoch University is hoping for as well. Asked whether the latest Australian operation expects to face difficulties distinguishing itself from the growing crowd of foreign institutions, the university’s international administrator quickly replies, “Not going by the level of demand we have experienced already.”

Asked whether the new Murdoch International Study Centre be able to shuck off any residue bad feeling still hanging in the tropical air after its counterpart’s ill-starred foray, Martin pauses for a little longer. “The University of New South Wales’ model was quite different from our model,” he replies evenly. “They can’t be compared. Although, having said that, we will be cautious.”


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