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
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"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.