A Divorce in Singapore

Johns Hopkins program, seen as pathbreaker for global graduate education, to close -- amid acrimony from former partners.
July 27, 2006

Nearly a decade ago, when Johns Hopkins University started a program in Singapore to train doctoral students and conduct research in several cutting-edge biomedical fields, the effort was seen as a model for international collaboration. Here was a university internationally known for its expertise in medicine setting up shop in Singapore, opening up the possibility of educating students who might never be able to enroll in Baltimore.

Hopkins also set up a clinic in Singapore, which appears to be thriving. But the research and education program is ending -- with Singapore and Hopkins exchanging less than diplomatic words in the Asian press. Singapore officials, who have provided millions to Hopkins for the program, say that the university has not recruited the graduate students or sent senior professors to Asia, as promised. A Baltimore-based spokesman for Hopkins said Wednesday that the university was preparing a statement about the collapse of the partnership, but as of late yesterday, it hadn't released anything.

With many American universities starting or contemplating international partnerships in which full degrees are offered abroad, the Hopkins-Singapore divorce raises some questions: Is this dissolution indicative of problems other institutions may face, or just an isolated incident? How will the experience affect other relationships between American universities and foreign countries? What are the keys to making such relationships work?

Not surprisingly given the fast-changing nature of international relationships in higher education, some experts think this does mean something (namely that American universities need to be sure they can deliver on more than their names). Others think this is just a case of a program running its course.

With Hopkins not talking, it's hard to know exactly why the program isn't working. But Singapore has been paying for much of the program throughout its lifetime. And after a Hopkins spokesman was quoted in the Singapore press as saying that the nation-state did not fulfill its end of the bargain, the country's science agency released a blistering counterattack. In it, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research said that Singapore had provided more than $50 million to pay for the program, but that Hopkins had failed to meet specific obligations.

For example, it said Hopkins committed to having at least 8 Ph.D. students enrolled by now, but that there are none. The university was supposed to have 12 "senior investigators with international reputations" in residence in Singapore, but the country said that the university had recruited 13 people, only 1 of whom met those criteria. Two of those recruited by Hopkins were based in Baltimore.

The agency in Singapore said that it was "deeply dismayed" at any impression it was responsible for the problems facing the junior faculty and students who are doing work at Hopkins-Singapore.

So what does this mean beyond Hopkins and Singapore?

Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College, said he doesn't know why the Singapore-Hopkins relationship soured, but thinks that other universities should pay attention. "Singapore clearly wanted both a brand name -- brand names are very important in the Asian context -- and it wanted the substance behind the name. If they don't get both, there's a problem," Altbach said.

The problem for many American colleges (and other colleges in English-speaking countries) is that there are plenty of Asian nations right now where governments or private entities care only about brand name, and the brand just needs to be Western, not necessarily a "name" institution, Altbach said. As a result, many programs being set up don't have standards equivalent to those of home campuses.

Altbach said American educators need to do more to make potential partners abroad understand that the excellence of American higher education isn't just a matter of names. He recently wrote an article for a Chinese newspaper that said "you need to be more careful about who you are letting in the door -- please be aware that every foreign institution that wants to get into China is not necessarily there for mutual benefit on both sides."

In the case of Singapore, Altbach said that officials there have a tough attitude about making sure that American educational partners fully deliver. When setting up foreign relationships, he said, "both sides need to be careful." He added: "I think this business is getting bigger and more sophisticated and both sides are beginning to learn that it's not going to be a walk in the park and you need to be careful about long-term commitments."

D. Bruce Johnstone, director of the Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said that amid "the flurry" of partnerships being created, it may be good for all that Singapore and Hopkins are calling it quits. "The high-end partnership is exceedingly difficult to maintain," he said. "This is a rather healthy development, suggesting that Hopkins doesn't need this, is not clinging to it as a profit-making activity, nor does Singapore need it. It is an almost welcome development for a partnership to say it's not serving a mutual interest," he said.

Why are such partnerships so difficult to maintain? "Part of it is that this can't all be done by e-mail. It takes a lot of traveling. However developed and pleasant a country and however comfortable the airline, it's a hell of a long ways away to Singapore," he said. "And the kinds of people who the Singaporeans want to see more of are people whose time is enormously precious." Johnstone said that the Hopkins program in Singapore had a lot of prominence because of the university's reputation, so he expected plenty of people to now examine what went wrong.

There are signs that some universities are getting hesitant about making big leaps abroad -- even when lots of money is available. The University of Washington turned down a $100 million deal last month that would have involved the creation of a branch campus in China.

At the same time, many others are opening full-fledged programs in China, Qatar, and elsewhere. Just this month, Singapore and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced plans for a new joint research center.

And as a result, some experts say that it would be wrong to read too much into the Hopkins situation. SUNY-Buffalo, for example, has been offering programs in Singapore for close to a decade, generally in business and education, starting with one program and growing gradually. "Programs succeed and fail all the time," in the United States, Singapore, or anywhere, said Stephen Dunnett, vice provost for international education at Buffalo. He predicted that the Hopkins experience would not alter the growth of American programs in Asia or elsewhere.

"There are going to be others that will take its place," he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the Hopkins-Singapore problems could lead to more questions for American institutions offering programs abroad. Dunnett was recently in Singapore and attended a recruiting session for prospective students and their parents. One of the top questions, he said, was "How do we know Buffalo won't change its mind?" because "there is concern that Americans can be fickle."

Dunnett said that the way American institutions need to respond is by making clear a long-term commitment. Buffalo currently enrolls about 400 students in Singapore and expects that to increase. But he said that it was only by offering courses for a few years without desired enrollment levels that the university built confidence in itself. "They had to trust us and feel we had staying power," he said.

Given that, post-9/11, more students from outside the United States want an American-style education but either can't or won't get to the United States, Dunnett said that these sorts of arrangements will grow. To work, he said, "there has to be a mutuality of interest."


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