Why Singapore can't attract any UK universities

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The Independent Online

The writing is on the wall for cash-strapped British universities. If the downward trend in applications from high-paying overseas students continues, they will not be able to rely indefinitely on attracting them in sufficient numbers to plug gaps in their stretched coffers.

Intensifying competition from the US, Europe and Australasia, and the rise of local universities in developing countries, are feeding the problem - as is the high cost of living in the UK.

Some British universities have decided that the solution lies in tapping into the vast Asian market for higher education by opening second campuses in Asia, often in partnership with local institutions.

Nowhere is keener to attract a British university than Singapore. With aspirations to become a leading education centre for the Asia-Pacific region, this tiny, well-ordered island state has been wooing leading foreign universities to go beyond the partnership model and to build and manage their own campus.

The aim is to offer the same degrees and teaching quality as students would receive in university's the country of origin. Spearheading this strategy is the Singapore government's Economic Development Board (EDB), which hopes to increase the numbers of international students in Singapore from the current annual intake of 70,000 to 150,000 by 2015. Their respected domestic universities are almost full, hence the desire to bring in well-known overseas names.

From the 28th floor of Raffles City Tower, EDB's headquarters, there is a panoramic view of the cluster of British-designed buildings making up the impressive new downtown campus of Singapore Management University, one of three public higher-education institutions catering for domestic demand. Nearby lies the waterfront site for Singapore's version of the London Eye, which, Kenneth Tan of the EDB says will, in true Singapore style, be bigger and better than the original.

Singapore, with its population of just over four million, may be keen to borrow from the best of British in many fields, but it has so far failed to persuade one of our universities to replicate itself in the tropics. After much wrangling, the governing body of the University of Warwick recently voted against setting up a second campus in Singapore, with anxieties about academic freedom in tightly-controlled Singapore influencing the final vote.

Tan, who went to Oxford, seems relaxed about the Warwick rejection and reveals that efforts to revive the plan are continuing. He concedes that much will depend on the attitude of Warwick's new vice-chancellor, who takes up his post this summer.

Other major British universities have reportedly been approached by Singapore to set up campuses, but so far none has leapt at the opportunity, despite the fact that several rivals already have an academic presence on the island, from franchise operations and partnerships to fully-fledged independent campuses. These include MIT, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business of the US, INSEAD business school of France and Japan's Waseda University.

Why go to the trouble and expense of setting up a campus halfway across the world, especially as, in the case of Singapore, the government will not fund the main building costs (although they will offer start-up assistance)? Tan says the promise lies in the potential for greater global exposure and access to a vast pool of talented students from India, China and the burgeoning economies of South-east Asia.

He says the upwardly mobile students of the future will seek a more cosmopolitan, more international educational experience, but one close to home. "Institutions may have to locate themselves in different countries in order to stay competitive," he argues.

This view is echoed by Professor Douglas Tallack, pro-vice-chancellor for internationalisation at Nottingham University, which recently became the first foreign university to set up a campus on mainland China. Nottingham is the UK's trailblazer for international expansion; five years ago, it established its first overseas campus in Malaysia, just across the water from Singapore.

"We cannot assume that international students will continue to turn up on our doorstep as they have done," Tallack says. "Successful British universities are those that will have developed a presence elsewhere in the world. We believe a physical campus is the only way to do this properly. Of course, an overseas campus is a big management commitment. My view is that if you don't take the risk, you have no chance of succeeding. One attraction for students is that fees in China are half of what international students would pay in the UK, and the cost of living is much lower."

Sydney's University of New South Wales has struck a deal with Singapore to set up an independent campus that will eventually house 15,000 students from all over Asia. Professor Greg Whittred, president of UNSW Asia, confirmed that the issue of freedom of academic expression was part of their internal debate.

"Our academic board voted unanimously to support this initiative," he says. "We have had an involvement with this region for 50 years. It is our backyard. Singapore is a much less risky environment in which to establish a second campus than most places in the region. Education is prized there, and it has a government that wants us to succeed." Because of UNSW's close ties with the region, Whittred believes it is better placed to make a success of this kind of venture than a British university.

Singapore has approached Cambridge, but the university rejected the idea. "We receive constant approaches of this kind, not only from Asia," says Tao-Tao Chang, the head of Cambridge's International Office. "But it's impossible to recreate a model that has grown organically over the centuries."

Liverpool University is bullish about its joint venture in Asia. The Chinese Government has given it the go-ahead, in partnership with Xi'an Jiaotong University, for a new university to open in September 2006 at Suzhou, 90km west of Shanghai.

Billed as "completely independent, with its own degree-awarding powers," the institution should be fully developed in five to seven years. Liverpool's vice-chancellor, Professor Drummond Bone, says: "This is a new model for a British operation in higher education in China - a genuine co-operative venture; not an outpost, but a new university offering its own degrees, with cutting-edge input from the UK on curriculum development and quality assurance."

There are risks involved in internationalising, whether it is via a self-governing version of the home campus or through a partnership formed to create a new university from scratch. British universities considering the move must take into account the volatility in overseas markets, as well as the local political environment.

But Kenneth Tan is convinced that the concept of the multinational university is here to stay. As we move further into "the Asian century", more of our forward-looking institutions with an international focus will surely follow Nottingham and Liverpool's example and look hard at the idea of establishing a physical presence in this potentially lucrative, education-hungry region.