At this rate, Yale-NUS College’s successor won’t succeed in achieving its lofty goal

Academic Views / Sunday, September 12th, 2021

Linda Lim and Pang Eng Fong respond to the NUS President’s stated rationale for closing Yale-NUS College in 2025. The two economists argue that the apparent lack of due process, stakeholder engagement and strategic planning do not augur well for New College, which NUS promises will preserve the essence of Yale-NUS.

In his Straits Times article justifying the closure of Yale-NUS College (YNC) through its merger with the National University of Singapore’s pre-existing University Scholars Programme (USP), NUS President Tan Eng Chye emphasizes (1) finances and (2) the desire to give “more students” access to an interdisciplinary curriculum. 

The previous day, writing in AcademiaSG, we had expressed skepticism about whether financial considerations justified the closure of Singapore’s first liberal arts college. President Tan’s op-ed does not persuade us.

On (1), as we’ve argued twice previously (in 2004 and now), a successful business model is possible for a small liberal arts college, even a private one, as shown by the multiplicity and longevity of those in the United States.  In the case of Singapore, government provision of land and building costs, a per-student capitation, and a funding match for private donations raised — similar to that afforded other universities in Singapore — would provide a good start-up foundation for an enterprise such as YNC became.  Beyond that, endowment would build up over time, as the College’s alumni proceed in their careers.  YNC was already preparing for a major fund-raising campaign that would bring in more resources, before this was shut down.

The primary source of funds for the excess costs (above basic public provision) that a small liberal arts college would require (to pay for a lower student-faculty ratio, more staff support, extra- and co-curricular activities etc.) would come from high tuition — “You get what you pay for”.  President Tan noted that the majority of YNC students receive financial aid, which denies the popular claim that the College is “elitist”, serving only students from high-income families.  While this egalitarian goal is admirable, from the perspective of financial sustainability, it makes sense to reduce or eliminate this “needs-blind” admissions policy for international students, as YNC was reportedly already considering. The tiny 6% admissions rate shows that there is strong international demand for places at YNC, such that tuition for international students could be raised, and overall enrollments slightly increased, without compromising quality.  Scholarships funded by the government or by private donors could ensure sufficient socio-economic diversity in the student body.

On (2), we and many others have suggested why merging YNC with USP is unlikely to be successful in “scaling up” the educational benefits of the former. (See, for example, the article by Tee Zhuo, Melody Madhavan and Ng Yi Ming in the Straits Times.) NUS already touts its success in interdisciplinary education, including at USP, and there are other ways in which extending the benefits to more Singaporean students could be achieved—for example, by admitting more Singaporeans into YNC and USP, reducing the student-faculty ratio in liberal arts disciplines in NUS, introducing greater flexibility into the NUS curriculum, extending residential requirements, and imitating the cross-disciplinary team-teaching of YNC’s core curriculum. 

All of these would, of course, increase the costs of a liberal arts education at NUS, but they must be costs that NUS is willing to bear to support its claim.  More cost-efficient would be simply replicating some of the non-financial “intangible” elements of the YNC college experience that make it so valuable for students, especially Singaporean students who, unlike government scholars, cannot afford to go overseas to access them.  These include strong faculty governance, curricular independence (“academic freedom”), putting greater weight on teaching than on rankings-oriented research in faculty promotion, student autonomy to initiate curricular and co-curricular activities on and off campus with minimal bureaucratic interference — all public goods or “privileges” that YNC is believed to enjoy more than others at NUS.

Educational innovation is a constant in higher education.  But dismantling a proven successful program for which there is excess demand on both the buyers’ (admissions) and sellers’ (postgraduate placement) side of the market, without involving stakeholders in exploring alternative financial models, is unheard of.  Sadly, the lack of due process, care for stakeholders, and strategic planning in this case provides the greatest reason to doubt that the New College will be successful in giving more students access to “the best of Yale NUS”, an achievement of which NUS claims to be so proud.

  • Linda Lim is professor emerita of corporate strategy and international business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan. Pang Eng Fong is professor emeritus and former dean at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business.