Warwick’s decision disrupts Singapore’s plans
by John Burton
A decision by Warwick University to abandon plans for a Singapore campus due to worries about academic freedom might set back efforts by the city-state to attract top western universities in its quest to become a “global schoolhouse”.
Warwick said yesterday it would not proceed with plans to set up a full-scale university campus in Singapore after the faculty last week voted against it by a 2-1 margin on the grounds of academic freedom and financial cost.
However, the university said it might propose an alternative plan later.
The move is a blow to Singapore’s ambitions to become a regional hub for higher education since the proposed facility was to have been one of the biggest foreign university campuses on the island, along with one for Australia’s University of New South Wales (UNSW).
Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), which is responsible for attracting educational institutions to the city-state, would not comment on whether it would start looking for a foreign university to replace Warwick.
Officials have spoken of Singapore becoming the “Boston of the east” with a cluster of top universities like Harvard and MIT. The government wants education services to account for 5 per cent of gross domestic product, up from 3.6 per cent, within the next decade.
But Warwick’s decision could make academic freedom a more important factor among foreign educational institutions in deciding whether to set up in Singapore.
“It cannot help but do so,” said Kris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied academic freedom issues in Singapore after teaching for six years at the National University of Singapore. “The issue will need to be grappled with in a systematic way by both local and foreign universities in Singapore and the government over the next one to three years” if the island wanted to achieve its “global education hub” goal, he said.
Singapore requires international educational institutions operating there to agree not to conduct activities seen as interfering in domestic affairs.
Warwick’s staff and students were concerned not only about possible limits on academic research but the application of Singapore’s strict laws on speech, assembly and the press to campus activities. The Warwick campus would have been home to 10,000-15,000 students, 75 per cent of whom would have been foreign.
EDB officials have said academic freedom was not a key issue with foreign universities and cited the fact that 16 institutions, including Insead and the University of Chicago Graduate Business School, have set up schools or partnerships.
Mr Olds said most of the schools coming to Singapore were specialised institutes “less commonly associated with politically contentious issues”. In contrast, Warwick would offer a range of social science studies that might encounter problems.
UNSW said it had discussed academic freedom with the Singapore government. “We recognise that there could be potential problem areas, given that the legal framework for political expression and the defamation laws in Singapore are more restrictive than in Australia,” said John Ingleson, UNSW’s deputy vice-chancellor (international).
“Obviously, staff and students must respect the laws of the country they are in. If issues concerning academic freedom on campus do arise, we are confident they can be worked through and that’s certainly the understanding we have reached with the government.”
Foreign universities in Singapore had a greater degree of autonomy than local universities as a result of negotiations with the government, said Mr Olds.
Local academics can still draw official ire when they comment on politics. Cherian George, a journalism professor at the Nanyang Technological Institute, was accused last week of advocating support for a civil disobedience campaign led by an opposition politician after he wrote an article on the subject in a local newspaper.
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20 Oct 2005
Academic freedom issues worried Warwick
by Ho Ai Li and Sandra Davie
Can I teach a book that is politically satirical, apply it to the Singapore context and call the Singapore leader a dictator?
That was a question which National University of Singapore (NUS) human-rights expert, Dr Thio Li-ann, had to field when she went to Warwick University last month to address their concerns about academic freedom here.
Her response? She cited student Jamie Han who argued for less government control – and said even the ‘most enlightened despot’ could turn into a ‘tyrant’ if left unchecked – at an NUS dialogue session with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in February.
‘As far as I know, Jamie Han is still alive,’ she told about 80 students and lecturers.
Concerns over academic freedom – or the lack of it – have sunk the British university’s plan to set up a branch here, at least for now. There were also worries that it was stretching itself too thin and doubts over whether it could attract top-draw students and staff at its campus here.
After deliberating over an invitation from the Economic Development Board (EDB) for over a year, Warwick’s governing council decided on Tuesday that it could not proceed in the face of stiff academic opposition. The senate, the supreme academic body, voted 27-13 against the Singapore plan a week ago.
Dr Thio was hired by Warwick in August to write a paper addressing the constraints on freedom of expression here and how this might affect teaching and research activities.
She met Warwick students and lecturers and took questions at a ‘spirited’ 1 1/2 hour forum. One question was whether writer Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, banned here for religious reasons, can be taught.
She said she doubted it, but said the question should be referred to the EDB. Incidentally, Mr Rushdie gave a talk at Warwick this week.
Dr Thio’s bottom line was ‘Speech is permissible so long as it does not threaten real political change or to alter the status quo.’
She said ‘It is possible to engage in policy debates, as long as the criticism is issue-specific, directed in rational terms at the substance of a policy, rather than couched as vitriolic attacks against personal reputation.’
Warwick is ranked in the top 10 in Britain for its research excellence. But its culture of student activism and academic freedom made having a Singapore campus tricky.
Its students, for example, expressed concern as to what would happen if they held protests here. They also wondered if Warwick Pride – a society for gays and lesbians – could be set up here.
When contacted yesterday, however, EDB’s director of services cluster Kenneth Tan maintained that ‘there is scope for healthy and rigorous academic discussions and debates in a classroom setting that are objective and accurately grounded’.
Like Warwick, the University of New South Wales also had similar concerns when it considered setting up here. But the Australian institution overcame them and will open in Singapore in 2007.
Its deputy vice-chancellor, Professor John Ingleson, said research collaborations with Singapore academics helped them gain a ‘sophisticated’ understanding of the social and political environment of Singapore.
He added ‘We have seen the boundaries opening up in Singapore and… we believe it will open up further.’
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19 Oct 2005
Warwick says ‘No’
by Ho Ai Li and Sandra Davie
After deliberating for more than a year, Britain’s Warwick University has decided against setting up a branch campus in Singapore, at least for now.
The 33-member university council, its executive governing body, voted against the expansion plan yesterday, deciding it could not proceed against academic opposition underlined by a ‘nay’ vote from the university senate a week ago.
The senate, composed of academic staff and a few students, voted 27 to 13 against the move. Its key concerns were the question of academic freedom and the financial viability of the Singapore branch.
Though not binding on the university council, the vote was expected to put pressure on the governing body’s decision.
Yesterday, the university said it could not proceed ‘in the absence of a positive commitment from the academic community’, though a feasibility study released two weeks ago had pointed out several advantages of opening a branch here. It had concluded that Singapore is ‘the only credible Asian location for a Warwick branch campus of truly international character’.
But in a statement, Warwick spokesman Peter Dunn said the council plans to continue discussions to bring forth ‘an alternative plan’ for development that would command the support of the senate and the council.
The plan had been to set up here by 2008, attracting 10,000 students by 2022. It would have offered courses from the life sciences to performing arts, with fees at around £12,000 (S$36,000) a year.
But the issue of academic freedom was such an overriding concern that the university invited human rights expert Dr Thio Li-ann from the National University of Singapore to speak to about 80 staff and students last month.
Among other things, they had wanted to know what were the limits on what could be said or taught here.
Warwick has been weighing a move here since it received an invitation to do so from the Economic Development Board (EDB) last year.
It would have been the second foreign tertiary institution, after Australia’s University of New South Wales, to set up here.
The Warwick rejection means that EDB will now have to find another partner to set up a second comprehensive university. It is also a defeat for Warwick vice-chancellor David VandeLinde, who has been a strong champion of the project.
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14 October 2005
Warwick lecturers vote against Singapore campus
by John Burton
Senior lecturers at Warwick University in the UK have voted against setting up a branch campus in Singapore due to worries about limits on academic freedom, dealing a possible setback to the city-state’s ambitions to become a regional hub for higher education.
Singapore requires international educational institutions operating in the city-state to agree not to conduct activities seen as interference in domestic affairs.
The lopsided 27-13 “no” vote by Warwick’s senate this week is believed to be the first time a foreign university has rejected the conditions set by Singapore. Although the vote is non-binding, it is likely to put pressure on the university council to abandon the Singapore plan when it makes a final decision on October 18.
Warwick and Australia’s University of New South Wales are the only two foreign universities selected by Singapore’s Economic Development Board to set up a full-scale campus.
The city-state has succeeded in attracting smaller schools operated by several top institutions, including Insead and the University of Chicago Graduate Business School, in an effort to triple the number of university students to 150,000 in the next decade.
The Warwick vote came as the outgoing US ambassador to Singapore warned in a farewell speech that Singapore’s limits on expression might cause the government to “pay an increasing price for not allowing full participation of its citizens”.
Faculty and students at Warwick have questioned the costs of the nearly £300m ($525m) project and the university’s ability to attract quality students and staff to the Singapore campus. But much of the criticism has focused on limits on academic freedom and civil liberties, including curbs on gay rights and high execution rates for criminals.
Warwick recently sent a letter to EDB asking that its students in Singapore be exempt from strict laws limiting freedom of assembly, speech and the press, and the removal of bans on homosexuality and certain religious practices on campus.
It also sought guarantees that staff and students would not be punished by the Singapore government for making academic-related comments that might be seen “as being outside the boundaries of political debate”. EDB said it would not comment.
The demand that the Singapore campus enjoy the same degree of academic freedom as in the UK came in response to an advisory report by Thio Li-ann, a law professor at the National University of Singapore, which said freedom of “speech is permissible as long as it does not threaten real political change or to alter the status quo”.
She warned that “the government will intervene if academic reports cast a negative light on their policies” but said the presence of Warwick in Singapore could “serve as an impetus for continued liberalisation”.
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14 Oct 2005
Warwick’s S’pore plan hits uncertainty
by Ho Ai Li
Warwick University’s plans to set up a branch in Singapore have met with opposition from its own senior lecturers.
The university’s senate, its supreme academic body, voted 27-13 against its expansion plans on Wednesday, with three abstaining.
While the vote is not binding, it will put pressure on the university council – the executive governing body – which makes the final decision next Tuesday.
Warwick has been mulling a move here since receiving an invitation from the Economic Development Board (EDB) last year. Its plans received a boost when a positive feasibility study was released last week.
But the future of Warwick Singapore is now uncertain.
Many of its lecturers remain unconvinced over issues such as academic freedom, financial viability and the university’s ability to attract quality students and staff.
The issue of academic freedom has proved to be such an overriding concern that Dr Thio Li-ann from the National University of Singapore (NUS) was even invited to Warwick to speak about it last month.
Many Warwick lecturers, such as Professor Richard Higgott, director of Warwick’s Centre for Globalisation and Regionalisation, have also questioned the financial feasibility of the Singapore campus.
The university’s student newspaper, The Warwick Boar, reported that the arts and social studies departments expressed ‘overwhelming opposition’ to the Singapore proposals in emergency meetings last week. The paper said the medicine and science departments were more supportive, but the engineering department was still opposed.
The senate’s ‘nay’ vote has further underlined academic opposition to the idea. But the senate, which has up to 48 members, only oversees academic matters such as teaching and student welfare.
The council, which has up to 33 members, is the one which makes key managerial decisions. The council is made up of mainly business and community leaders from outside the university, but also includes six academics from the senate and two student representatives.
The Straits Times understands that only a simple majority is needed when the council counts its votes next week.
Vice-chancellor David Vandelinde told The Boar this was Warwick’s best chance to boost its international reputation. ‘I want a university with a fantastically increased diversity and understanding of the world that we live in. Singapore is a bridge to Asia and Asian culture, which is going to be incredibly important in the next century.’
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1 Sep 2005
Warwick’s Singapore fling
Should one of the UK’s top universities build a new campus in the Far East? The issue has sparked a big debate about the future direction of higher education. Lucy Hodges talks to warring staff and students
Warwick may be the very model of a modern university: hard-headed, go-getting and highly regarded for teaching and research, but it is also the scene of a bitter struggle about the direction that British universities should be taking. Students and staff are locked in dispute about whether the university should expand into Singapore.
“I don’t see any benefit to students in the UK, and I see a lot of questions about the morality of expansion into Singapore,” says Matt Sandy, deputy editor of the Warwick Boar, the student newspaper. “Is it right for a publicly funded British university to open a campus under a repressive regime that allows limited freedom of speech and has the highest execution rate in the world?”
Staff are equally split. Ten out of 35 departments are against the idea, including engineering and economics, according to the Boar. The university disputes these figures, saying that they are speculation.
Much of the academic opposition centres on the idea that opening up a big campus in Singapore would divert time and money away from Warwick. The critics, who refuse to go on the record, argue that Warwick University has enough on its plate, building up its academic excellence and improving its position in the research assessment exercise. Other lecturers have an open mind.
“This is a massively contentious issue,” says one. “If it were to be properly funded by the Singapore authorities and had the support of a string of academic champions, it would be a major coup. But it doesn’t. It has no academic champions.”
The initiative comes at a time when Warwick has two big projects to manage – the new medical school and the horticultural research facility that it took over last year. Both require a lot of management time and attention. This is not a good time to be building a whole new campus, say the critics. “Warwick’s strategy should be to achieve academic distinction, not to spread itself thin and dissipate its management expertise,” says one.
The university was invited to set up a campus on the island by Singapore’s Economic Development Board. Other British universities, including Imperial College London, are thought to have been approached, but they turned the offer down. Warwick, however, was flattered to be asked. Although it is highly rated in the UK – it comes in the top 10 of most league tables – it is unknown internationally (it is way down the Shanghai league table) and longs to put itself on the global map.
The proposal is ambitious and would be expensive: Warwick would build a campus for 10,000 students on the island. When the university first announced its plans, it talked about it costing £132m, and said that it would need to borrow £85m. Those figures are now out of date, according to a university spokesman. But fears remain that a university known for being well run financially could find itself going into the red.
Other British universities, such as Nottingham, which has opened a campus in China, have been careful not to commit themselves to vast capital investment. In the case of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, construction was paid for by the Chinese. Nottingham University lent its name and staff to the project, so there were some costs, but the enterprise was much less risky, financially.
But the Nottingham project is still a gamble. Higher-education experts believe that global expansion is inherently risky. “Foreign campuses are likely to be subject to political pressures of one kind or another,” says one.
Such concerns led Warwick to commission a feasibility study. This will report later this month. After that, there will be faculty meetings at which staff may voice their opinions, and then the senate and council will vote. The final decision will be taken by a meeting of the university council on 18 October. In the meantime, negotiations are continuing between Warwick and the Singapore government over the financial terms. These are crucial. Whether the project gets off the ground will depend on how much Singapore will cough up.
But it’s not just the money that worries Warwick staff. Among other things, they wonder whether they will be able to recruit students of a sufficiently high calibre. The best students on the island will go to the top local universities, such as the National University of Singapore, they argue, where they will not have to pay the high fees that Warwick expects to charge. Why, they ask, would overseas students from China sign up for Warwick University in Singapore when they could come to the Coventry campus in the UK for roughly the same fees? The answer is that the Chinese would rather go to a Mandarin- speaking country to study rather than to Britain where the food, climate and culture are unfamiliar. But the question is whether enough Chinese students will sign up for Warwick’s Singapore degrees. The critics wonder whether Warwick will only be able to fill the 10,000 places with students who have less than stellar academic records.
Then there is the question of where the staff will come from. A campus of 10,000 students will require hundreds of staff. The best academics are unlikely to want to leave the UK for an island the other side of the world where costs are notoriously high. So, a university in Singapore is likely to have to hire junior people at the start of their careers, or those whom other universities have rejected. “Given the difficulty we have in recruiting top-quality academics in some subjects at Warwick, how are we going to get 150-plus staff to teach in Singapore?” asks the senior academic.
However, not all staff are as pessimistic. The vice- chancellor, Professor David VandeLinde, who is personally associated with the idea, says: “I am convinced that if the terms and conditions turn out right, it could be a very interesting idea. It’s a unique opportunity.”
Professor Lord Bhattacharyya, founder of the university’s Warwick Manufacturing Group, and someone who knows Singapore, welcomes the idea cautiously. “If Singapore gives a dowry to Warwick so that it’s not very taxing to the university, then of course the university should support it,” he says.
Professor Anthony McFarlane, chair of Warwick’s history department, accepts the assurances that have been given that neither the level of funding at Warwick nor the university’s borrowing capacity would be affected by expanding into Singapore. “I am broadly in favour,” he says. “The university has gone through a long consultation. It is not something that we have leapt into with our eyes closed.”
It is right for Warwick to be thinking about extending its international reach, says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics. However, should it be looking west towards the USA rather than east. “We should certainly be thinking globally, but whether we should be in Singapore is not clear,” he says.
Recently four postgraduates have been to Singapore to see the human-rights situation for themselves. They returned pleasantly surprised. “This appears to be a really good idea,” says Carly Wentworth, one of the postgrads. “I think Singapore is an excellent place for a campus. The country is becoming more liberal. Overall, we were very positive about it.”
Professor VandeLinde takes the human-rights issue seriously, too. That is why he sent the four students to the island, commissioned a report from a human-rights expert, Dr Thio Li-ann at the National University of Singapore, and has organised a report by Warwick, he says.
In the end, the ball is in Singapore’s court: “It is really going to depend on the magnitude of the investment by the government of Singapore,” he says.