Saturday, October 23, 2021

NUS Students Weigh in on Process and Shortcomings of Merger Announcements

Story | Tanisha Naqvi (she/her), Guest Reporter
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

The morning of Aug. 27 marked upheaval and confusion across NUS, when the formation of the New College and College of Design and Engineering (CDE) was officially announced by NUS. 

The merger of Yale-NUS and the University Scholars Programme (USP) remains opaque: no information has been provided on the curriculum or faculty of the upcoming New College. Meanwhile, first-year students enrolled in the School of Design and Engineering (SDE) and the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) will start CDE’s common curriculum from Jan. 1, 2022; its content and requirements have been outlined here.

Students have expressed their frustrations with the mergers and their announcements through social media and the #NoMoreTopDown petition.

However, in a Sept. 28 town hall with Yale-NUS students, NUS President Tan Eng Chye denied that the NUS community harbored significant opposition to his decisions.

“Have you actually asked your friends and faculty members?” Prof. Tan said. “For every one that says no, I’m sure I can find 10 others that actually have the reverse experience.”

To learn about these decisions’ impact on students, The Octant separately interviewed five students across NUS faculties, who shared their reactions, thoughts, and criticisms concerning the mergers and their announcement.

Lack of clarity and transparency

All interviewed students hoped to receive clearer, less confusing information about the mergers from NUS.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” said Ken Bradley, a second-year Industrial Design student at SDE, whose juniors are set to take the CDE common curriculum next semester.

They later resorted to analogy to describe their confusion: “It feels like, you issue a skincare product, saying it’s gonna clear your skin, it’s gonna clear your skin, just insisting that it’s gonna clear your skin.”

“But the ingredients are not even on the packaging. So if you put it on—well, am I going to get a chemical burn? What’s going to happen? Or is this just water in a bottle?”

J, an ex-USP student now in her fourth year at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), though not acutely affected by the New College merger, had similar criticisms about its announcement by NUS. “It’s not specific,” she said. 

“I know the rationale that they provided was because this is a very sensitive decision, which is why they didn’t involve people. But I guess from the point of view of a student, or any member of the public, there are just a lot of question marks as to what exactly was this sensitive decision-making process?”

She continued: “It would have been nice to speak to students and get their understanding of what they’re really looking for in an education or what’s useful for them.”

Diana Kondratova, a first-year Architecture student at SDE who is unsure whether her plans to minor in Physics will be compromised by CDE’s common curriculum, expressed her wish for a clearer announcement from NUS.

Kondratova said: “Even though it might be drastic, it would be more coherent, and easier to adapt to. Because right now they’re saying that they’re going to make changes starting semester two.”

“But what kind of changes? Like, what, are they going to make new mandatory mods we’re going to take? Nobody knows.” 

She later shared: “The way this is being executed makes no sense, because they’re being so untransparent about what’s going on, like the fact that tutors don’t even know what’s going to happen next semester.”

Elly Lau, currently in her fourth year at FASS, also wondered how NUS’s lack of clarity concerning the mergers would affect student intake for CDE and the New College. “If you want to do admissions for new students but you don’t even have a complete picture, then how do you expect to attract students? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Kondratova said: “It’s just that communication is key, right? And when it’s absent, I think that’s when people get frustrated and confused.”

Key stakeholders disregarded

The consensus from many students’ comments is that NUS’s announcements fell short on both consultation and clarity.

The Monday after the merger announcement, Kondratova approached a professor in her faculty: “I asked my tutor about it, just very frustrated, because for them as tutors, I assumed they had a little bit more intel on what was going on.”

“But essentially, they were in the same place as we were, which is even more bizarre.” 

This contrasts with Tan’s remark in the Sept. 28 town hall with Yale-NUS students: “We have had, actually, a lot of engagements with our students and faculty members.”

According to Kondratova, her tutor shared that when the tutors were briefed a week before classes started, they were only told to continue teaching in the same way as they had been before.

“And that’s just confusing,” Kondratova said.

Many share Kondratova’s confusion, including a former member of USP and SDE (Architecture) who commented on the #NoMoreTopDown petition.

The commenter said: “I had assumed that rigorous and faculty-wide consultation had occurred prior to the decision on the mergers of the various institutions, but am now completely surprised to read from the full petition of how terribly this has all been managed and executed.” 

“To learn that current members of the faculties were learning that mergers were occurring for the first time (and at the same time) as an alumnus who’d graduated almost 20 years ago is completely outrageous.”

Lau mentioned that her professors had been similarly burdened after last year’s announcement of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), a four-year honours college for students from FASS and Faculty of Science (FOS) that delivers an interdisciplinary education through a 13-module Common Curriculum

She said: “I feel like for CHS it was profs who got the shorter end of the stick, because they had to devise a whole new common curriculum in less than a year.” 

“This whole interdisciplinary thing… I mean, for professors, it’s sort of a struggle. Like, how do you teach an entirely new interdisciplinary module if it’s not what you’ve been doing for a while?” 

Lau said that greater consultation from NUS was a simple ask that had not been fulfilled. “When you teach things like project work, they’re always like: ‘Oh, you have to gather feedback from your participants or beneficiaries,’ and then you incorporate that into your solution,” said Lau. 

“These are simple skills that we are taught in schools, but it’s not being put into practice on a level that actually affects people’s everyday lives, which is wack. I just wish these weren’t difficult things to ask for.”

Kondratova spoke further on the announcement’s timing for students: “If they let us know that this was happening at least a month before school started, I think it would have made more sense.” 

“I feel like the fact that they’re throwing out all this information about the mergers mid-semester… it just shows that they weren’t willing to hear what the main stakeholders, the students, had to say in the first place, right?” 

Kondratova fell briefly silent, before continuing: “But it is what it is, right? The worst part is, you have to deal with it. You can’t really do anything.”

Interdisciplinary means what?

None of the students interviewed knew what the New College or CDE curricula would look like. However, speaking from their experience receiving an interdisciplinary education at NUS, they shared their hopes for what interdisciplinarity could look like: relevant, non-compulsory, and incentivized modules.

Alefiya, currently in her second year at FASS, said that the point of an interdisciplinary education is to “play to the strengths of each discipline.” 

Bradley, in a similar vein, said that a good interdisciplinary curriculum would examine the core competencies of the professions in each discipline, and then take into account their ecosystems and working partners.

“I am… not sure if that’s what they’re doing?” Bradley said.

Most students said that interdisciplinary learning should not be made compulsory for various reasons.

J said that a good interdisciplinary curriculum would ensure “flexibility” and “diverse options,” rather than simply “collapsing things into one program, and then students have to go to that program rather than being able to choose.”

Lau echoed these sentiments. “Interdisciplinary isn’t just a label you slap on [by] making students do more compulsory mods,” she said, in reference to the General Education (GE) pillars offered across all NUS faculties. She mentioned her difficulties with the GET1030 Computational Thinking module, which was a “nightmare.” 

Despite the module emphasizing that the GE modules provide “workplace-ready skills that would help FASS graduates get better jobs,” Lau still found herself asking: “How is this going to be relevant to what I’m interested in?” 

She said that a better alternative would be for NUS to integrate computational thinking into her existing Sociology modules. “Arguably that might be the harder thing to do,” she said, “but then that connection might be stronger in terms of relevance.”

Bradley also suggested that students should study the basics of their subject, before moving on to modules designed specifically to be interdisciplinary. “You should make those modules the star modules,” they said, suggesting that teachers with field experience in an interdisciplinary environment would be better equipped to teach interdisciplinary modules, which could then draw students in.

Prioritizing student welfare

Both Bradley and Kondratova shared concerns about SDE’s current workload, and how it might compromise students’ education and health if left unchecked. Kondratova mentioned the strain already introduced by a new compulsory Engineering module for Architecture students, while Bradley worried that CDE’s attempts at an interdisciplinary education would increase overwork, negatively impacting students’ education and health.

“It’s been five weeks; I pull off at least two all-nighters every week. It’s so crazy,” Kondratova said. 

According to Bradley, it is “keep doing work, keep doing work, keep doing work” for Engineering, Architecture, and Industrial Design students as well. 

They added: “There’s not a sense of belonging; it’s a sense of obligation and dread. One of the things that I really wish that NUS was willing to address—actually my biggest concern—is the mental health of students.”

Kondratova mentioned that the introduction of an Engineering module, EG1311 Design and Make, has caused existing workload-heavy Architecture modules to count for fewer modular credits. Kondratova said that Studio (AR1101 Design 1) is an eight-credit module that teaches the fundamentals of Architecture. Since the curricular changes, the module has been reduced to four credits. According to Kondratova, Design and Make is also strenuous, but the workload for Studio has not been decreased.

Bradley was concerned that overworking students could compromise the CDE’s future attempts at an interdisciplinary education. “I think one of the concerns with more compulsory modules is: Does it actually address this lack of belonging and overloaded feeling?” 

“One of the most important things to being an interdisciplinary lifelong learner is to feel secure, safe, and mentally stable. Otherwise, you don’t want to learn anything new or ask what other people are doing.” 

“That kind of flies in the face of interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Because you didn’t learn anything. All you learned was to do the project.”

They shared their view on what interdisciplinary education should encompass instead: “It’s not just hard skills and soft skills. It’s also about self-management and interpersonal relationships—that, admittedly, is very hard to teach.”

“You’re not exempt from what you’re teaching us”

Some students also felt a strong sense of irony in the way the decisions were made.

J said: “The whole point of having this tight-knit community like USP is because they want to provide an environment where people who are actively engaged can have an avenue to be actively engaged.”

“So I thought there was this whole, like, irony where you make a big decision and the students are not given any say in it, and not even a heads-up.”

Bradley pointed out that the ability to receive critical feedback is necessary to being a good designer: “If you don’t know how to do that, you’re a horrible designer.” 

They continued: “NUS management are being bad designers of NUS. They’re not designing a very hospitable environment.”

“My personal motto is: ‘Design for people with people.’ I think maybe NUS Management should keep that in mind: When you design systems and a syllabus and curriculum for people, they’re gonna interact with it, and they’re gonna experience it. So you should have a bit of empathy.”

“You’re not exempt from what you’re teaching us,” Alefiya said. “You’re teaching us the power of speech and critical thought, and you’re not exempt from following it.”

1 COMMENT

  1. This is typical of NUS type decisions When I was a student of the 80s until today it seems to be the same. So get used to it guys, it’s largely symptomatic of Singapore society at large which is still patronage based.

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