Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Change in Australian Higher Education - UNSW's Singapore Problems

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has closed its newly opened Singapore campus because of disappointing student numbers. Apparently only 148 students enrolled in the initial intake as compared with an anticipated 300, opening up a $15 million revenue hole.

Back in April 2004, UNSW announced with much fanfare that agreement had been reached with the Government of Singapore to establish Singapore's first foreign university.

The University stated that UNSW Singapore would be the first wholly-owned and operated research and teaching campus to be established overseas by an Australian university as well as UNSW's first offshore campus.

The announcement of the new venture was jointly made by Singapore's Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr George Yeo, and UNSW's Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), Professor John Ingleson.

Professor Ingleson said at the time that UNSW Singapore would be a major research and teaching institution independently governed and run by UNSW.

"This sets it apart from most offshore universities which are primarily teaching-only institutions. It is also unique in that there will be no third-party involvement," he said.

To be viable, the new venture had to attract non-Singaporean students to study in Singapore. This does not appear to have happened to the expected degree.

In a story on Channel Asia, UNSW VC Professor Fred Hilmer said that the university had anticipated an initial intake of 300 students, but its current enrolment was only 148. And, based on applications for its second intake in August, the university projected that it would achieve just over half of its enrolment target of 480.

According to Professor Hilmer, every 20 students fewer meant A$1 million ($1.2 million) less in tuition fees. So, the firstyear enrolment numbers would equate to a shortfall of A$15 million.

“An intensive review of our operations in Singapore clearly indicates that to continue would involve an unacceptable level of risk to our institution,” Prof Hilmer said.

The University tried to negotiate a scaled down version of its plans with the Singapore Economic Development Board, but failed. According to a story on Yawning Bread's blog, the UNSW failure followed an earlier decision by Warwick University rejecting the idea of a Singapore campus.

The University has offered places and financial support to students wishing to continue their studies in Australia, but this has left staff and some students facing an uncertain future. The total cost to the University of the failed venture is estimated at $40 million.

In an earlier story on this blog, Sandra Welsman looked at the change pressures and processes affecting Australia's universities. UNSW's high profile Singapore failure is an example of the processes she described at work. It probably won't affect UNSW's main campus operations, but it shows the problems that Australia's universities face as they try to respond to domestic change and growing international competition.

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