National University of Singapore (NUS) announced on Friday that this year’s batch of students (2021/22) to enroll in Yale-NUS College will be its last when it graduates in 2025, and the college will be merged with the University Scholars Programme (USP) to form a new entity.
The new college will have a curriculum adapted from both the USP and Yale-NUS foundations, enhanced with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) elements. The new college will accept its first batch of students from 2022.
Just like that, Singapore’s 10-year experiment of a liberal arts college has ended.
Reactions to the merger
According to CNA, students at the Yale-NUS and USP campus were surprised and shocked at the sudden change. They were only informed on Thursday that classes would be cancelled on Friday, and that both Yale-NUS and USP students were given a Zoom link for a virtual townhall on Friday morning following the merger announcement. For one current student, the news felt like he was “going to a non-existent college.”
It’s clear that all students were concerned about their graduation certificates, and how the new college would affect their prospects in the future. One student said he felt like he came from a “failed experiment.”
Since Yale-NUS graduates will have degrees conferred by “Yale-NUS College of NUS” and not “NUS” or “Yale”, the issue at hand is the validity of their qualification – graduates applying for jobs may have issues with verification, since “Yale-NUS College” will cease to exist. Current students are facing dilemma – will they carry on studying to get a qualification from a non-existing university, or transfer to other university and start all over again?
Many delayed matriculants with offers from Yale-NUS were also disappointed by this news. Two current NSmen expressed their disappointments to The Octant. One of them said that Yale-NUS should honor offers that were made, while the other lamented that he had “lost the perfect opportunity to be part of a global school” and that he’d be applying to a UK or US school.
While students lament the loss, many folks on social media were happy about the news, and were quick to dismiss the college as a “leftist hotbed.”
The anti-LGBT group “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” was also quick to jump in on the news of the college’s closure, calling it a “progress.” They even go so far as to say that the college was a “breeding ground for activists who welcome dissent and protests.”
Asian universities tend to focus most on science, technology, and other professional fields and are perceived to contribute most to economic output (and yield jobs for graduates), so perhaps the average Singaporean wouldn’t regard Yale-NUS’s closure as a big deal. But the closure does bring out misplaced ideas that “liberal arts” is left-leaning or useless or “a Western concept”.
As MP Jamus Lim tweeted, humanism was pervasive in the Chinese philosophical tradition (during the Hundred Schools period), and Indian philosophy has long birthed diverse intellectual thought, through robust argumentation.
Liberal arts imparts a mindset, rather than a set of rigid, technically-oriented training. It’s therefore common sense that the best ideas emerge from unplanned cross-fertilisation of different disciplines, forged through critique and discussion, rather than forced cohabitation.
The beginning of an end
According to a report by The Octant, he dissolution of Yale-NUS was initiated by Prof. Tan Eng Chye, who raised the idea to the Ministry of Education in June. By the time he approached Peter Salovey, the current President of Yale University, in July, the merger decision was already made. The report also mentioned that Salovey approved the merger even though Yale would have preferred to continue with Yale-NUS.
In another article on The Octant, it was reported that many senior figures at Yale University, NUS, and Yale-NUS College did not have a say in the decision to merge Yale-NUS with the University Scholars Programme, including the Yale-NUS Governing Board.
The original affiliation agreement signed in 2011 between NUS and Yale has always given either party the opportunity to withdraw in 2025. The new college will continue offering a liberal arts education, but Yale University will play no role in its oversight.
To date, over 10,000 students from various faculties of NUS have signed a petition calling for reversal of Yale-NUS merger, demanding #NoMoreTopDown in the way the institution makes decisions.
Controversies of the college
From its conception up to now, Yale-NUS hasn’t been without controversy. Back in 2012, it’d already been plagued by criticisms by students and faculty from Yale’s US counterpart about the lack of academic freedom in Singapore. Most cited concerns about Singapore’s laws of freedom of assembly and expression, which is often critical in a liberal arts education. However, Yale officials stressed that the new school wasn’t a branch campus because the degrees issued won’t be Yale degrees.
The criticism mostly died down as the college proceeded, and students reaped the benefits of a liberal arts education. But it wasn’t long before the next controversy struck – in 2017 and 2018, students were unhappy with decisions made on campus without involving the student body, leading to a silent sit-in protest in 2018.
Then in 2019, the college hit headline news when a one-week course titled “Dissent and Resistance,” led by playwright Alfian Sa’at – meant to introduce students to various modes of dissent and organising resistance – was cancelled.
Yale University has expressed concern over the cancellation, that such an action might threaten the values of academic freedom and open inquiry. However, Prof Tan Tai Yong (President of Yale-NUS) had told The Straits Times that after a review, the board found that the course “did not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the issues around dissent.”
In reaction to the cancellation, in parliament, then Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that “educational institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics.”
The future of an all-inclusive education
Yale-NUS was the first liberal arts college in Singapore, and at barely a decade old, it’s very young. Likewise, USP is also young, at only 20 years old. With the merger in place, the new college will be an entirely new entity that will require some time to build its reputation.
For anyone looking for liberal arts degrees in the region can look at liberal arts universities like ICU and Rikkyo University in Japan, Campion College in Sydney, or Lingnan University in Hong Kong; there are also Liberal Arts Colleges in many universities across Taiwan, South Korea, and China, to name a few.
Whether the decision to close Yale-NUS represents a final referendum on the viability of a liberal arts model of higher education in Singapore is anyone’s guess. But for students of the soon-to-be-non-existent Yale-NUS and USP, all they can say to potential employers is, “It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well” (from Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well”).