Friday, 20 April 2012

Yale-NUS flak not mirrored in China

Foreign campuses there do not face as much criticism over freedom as Yale does in S'pore
By Ho Ai Li, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2012

BEIJING: The proposed liberal arts college to be set up jointly by Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) has drawn much flak from the American side over a perceived lack of freedom in Singapore. But fewer potshots have been fired at foreign colleges with campuses in China.

New York University (NYU), for instance, is opening a campus in Shanghai next year with the East China Normal University, without sparking consternation - although China is no bastion of freedom.

Like the Yale-NUS college, NYU Shanghai will offer liberal arts courses as part of a broad-based undergraduate programme it plans to offer.

There has been some grumbling, but this did not reach 'a crisis point' - unlike at Yale - said Professor Philip Altbach of Boston College.

Agreeing, NYU China studies scholar Rebecca Karl said there has been a lack of coordinated protest over its Shanghai plans.

Likewise, the branches of other foreign universities in China, like Britain's Nottingham University in Ningbo and the US' Johns Hopkins University in Nanjing, have not met as much criticism over issues of academic freedom.

While Yale is going ahead with its Singapore plans, its scholars passed a resolution to express 'concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore'.

'It is one of the few examples where we have seen a concerted effort by a group of faculty to use the formal academic governance procedures to protest the opening of a foreign outpost,' noted Dr Jason Lane, a global higher education expert at the State University of New York.

Clashes over values, like that in the case of the Yale-NUS liberal arts college, have arisen as more universities worldwide venture out to set up branches across the globe, in what some call the higher education gold rush.

There are now about 200 branch campuses in every continent except Antartica, said Dr Lane.

The trend gathered speed from 2000 to 2005 and peaked in 2008 before dropping off due to the global financial crisis, he noted. But more schools are looking overseas again, he added.

Besides NYU, Duke University is working with a local university to set up a campus in Kunshan city, near Shanghai, that will offer courses in subjects like management.

While clashes over academic freedom grab headlines, financial feasibility is the key thing schools mull over in deciding whether to go abroad, said Prof Altbach, an expert in international education.

With China being the top source of international students, many foreign universities play down concerns about censorship to target its huge market.

So has Singapore been unfairly singled out? Is it a case of double standards?

Professor Karl said there was 'no doubt a terrible double standard here'.

'It is in part about market size and promise of riches. But it is also, I suspect, about expectations: communist China cannot be expected to be free, whereas capitalist Singapore is presumed to be and thus must be held to a higher standard,' she said in an e-mail reply.

It may also be a legacy of Cold War thinking, where communist China was always an enemy but Singapore was part of the 'free world' and thus must be held to a standard to which the Republic itself never aspired, she added.

Professor Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Centre, said the lack of protest could be because foreign universities have few illusions about academic freedom in China.

There is little real autonomy for their Chinese branches, which have to follow China's rules closely, he added.

For instance, they have to admit students based on college entrance exam or gaokao scores, without much room to set their own admission criteria.

Others say it is hard to generalise, as each school makes up its own mind. While Yale had strong concerns about academic freedom, other foreign universities in Singapore - for example, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - did not have the same worries, said Dr Lane.

Yale and NYU also differ greatly. NYU is 'nouveau riche', while Yale is 'aristocracy' and cares more about preserving its brand, said NYU's Prof Karl.

While the New York school already has a campus in Abu Dhabi, Yale's Singapore college will be its first abroad.

As Dr Lane points out, the environment of an overseas branch campus will almost never be the same as that at home.

He said: 'Leaders need to decide what differences they are willing to accept and which ones they will fight against.'

Academics name several factors that could have resulted in the different reactions to the setting up of foreign campuses in Singapore and China


Politics: Capitalist Singapore assumed to be free and therefore held to high standard

History: Singapore considered part of 'free world'

Pedigree: Yale is 'aristocracy' and cares about preserving its brand

Precedent: Yale-NUS is its first foreign college abroad

NYU Shanghai

Politics: Communist China cannot be expected to be free

History: Legacy of Cold War thinking, where communist China was always an enemy

Pedigree: NYU is 'nouveau riche'

Precedent: NYU has a campus in Abu Dhabi

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