Saturday, October 23, 2021

The New College: Fantastic Hopes and How It (Probably) Can’t Achieve Them

Story | Avery (she/her), Guest Writer
Photo | Raphael Hugh (he/him)

It has become a cliché universally tired of that the New College seeks to combine the best of its parts. A recent spate of high-profile statements has echoed this claim, from NUS President Tan Eng Chye’s full-page op-ed to Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing’s Parliament speech on Monday. Unfortunately, this is a lofty claim that comes with mountainous challenges that the New College may—or may not—overcome.

The Mirage of Inclusivity

Let’s start with the basics. Inclusivity has been claimed as an essential reason for the “merger” (the de facto closure of Yale-NUS), with Minister Chan Chun Sing and Prof Tan Eng Chye both promising and reiterating a more “inclusive, accessible, and affordable” New College, and “broaden[ing] access to interdisciplinary education” conspicuously displayed in all three statements.

There are two ways to assess accessibility: the total number of students admitted and the opportunities for financially disadvantaged students to attend. 

Unfortunately, the first metric falls apart at first glance. The New College is planned to matriculate 500 students per year, and even less for the first year. Yale-NUS’s target cohort size is about 250, and USP between 220 and 240. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see the problem.

But perhaps the New College is inclusive because it enables more underprivileged students to attend? To assess this, let us consider the existing policies. The current Yale-NUS financial aid policy pledges to meet all demonstrated financial need for all admitted students, Singaporean or not. This has its fair share of problems, such as the controversial “student effort contribution” and sometimes inconsistent aid packages. But it still represents a commitment to reduce fees to whatever (they think) a student can afford, with no strings attached.

In contrast, NUS’s financial aid package comprises a patchwork of schemes that tend to rely on repayable loans, have stricter income requirements, and crucially do not promise to cover full need. By NUS’s calculator, a Singaporean “relatively needy student” in the College of Humanities and Sciences can expect to pay $5,515 upfront including residential fees, and more importantly take out $8,200 in loans per year—a considerable sum the student must eventually repay. As a result, underlying the apparently exorbitant fees is the fact that, for those on financial aid, Yale-NUS can actually be more affordable than NUS. 

The New College must therefore do better to honor its promise of inclusivity. The problem is that New College does not administer its own major programs, and home faculty fees are charged outside of its control. Indeed, the USP FAQs suggest a student will pay tuition to their home faculty and no additional New College fees, except for a hostel fee. Bound by its nature, even if it fully covers residential fees—current residential colleges do not—faculty fees will likely fall under the jurisdiction of the NUS Office of Financial Aid with its more stringent requirements, unless those are changed university-wide. 

Without these changes, even if the New College does subsidize these fees for students, it will have to face questions as to why other home faculty students, enrolled in the exact same course but without the enrichment of the New College, should be subject to a different policy.

And that’s not mentioning international students on financial aid. Our clearest indication yet comes from the op-ed, where Tan describes how “its funding model will be more closely aligned with… our philosophy of providing support for financially disadvantaged Singaporean students.” The conspicuous exclusion of international students from this statement damages his claim that “The New College will be more sustainable, inclusive and accessible to all potential NUS students,” and undermines Chan’s hopes for students to be “more global in orientation and exposure.”

Curriculum Woes

Tan Eng Chye has expressed particular interest in setting up a Common Curriculum. He writes that the New College “will provide a broad-based, interdisciplinary common curriculum to allow students access to many more disciplines – science, engineering, design, law and computing, in addition to the humanities, social sciences and sciences.” 

It is clear NUS’s broad vision centers around providing a greater variety of compulsory course offerings. However, this is problematic because NUS home faculties encourage early specialization. Students are able (and sometimes required) to select a course of study at matriculation. The exposure to new areas of study provided by an assortment of compulsory courses before major choice—an important benefit of a common core—is then nullified, and “access to many more disciplines” risks becoming a hindrance. 

Other goals of a common curriculum also hang in the balance. Arguably the most important among them is to cultivate wider, intangible awarenesses in addition to subject-specific competence. The Yale-NUS Common Curriculum Review, for example, notes how it helps students develop “intellectual curiosity” and “ability to sit with ambiguity” among a wide gamut of “capacities and broader awarenesses,” and emphasises “the need to coordinate across courses to enhance learning objectives.” While some colleges adopt an open curriculum that they believe best promotes student engagement, in a curriculum of compulsory courses, how every course can connect with one another to achieve something greater must be carefully considered. 

Unfortunately, devising a curriculum that achieves both subject-specific skill and broader qualities takes scrupulous consideration and therefore time. It cannot be achieved by simply piling more courses onto the catalog. The Yale-NUS Common Curriculum took years to plan and continues to be refined, while the USP’s progenitors started as early as 1996, four years before USP was launched.

Tan claimed the New College would take less time because they already have all the faculty they need from Yale-NUS, USP, and the wider NUS, but that ignores the fact that most existing faculty must also handle full-time teaching and research duties. Unless these duties are abandoned, it is unlikely faculty can offer nearly the same time and commitment to the New College as Yale-NUS’s founding faculty did before 2013, even if more can be deployed. Yale-NUS’s Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) Joanne Roberts also clarified at the parents’ town hall that Yale-NUS faculty with full-time teaching duties would not be expected to contribute to the planning process, directly contradicting Tan’s claim. 

Besides, the task they face is also different. Curriculum developers for the New College only have a few short months before the application season to design at least an outline of the curriculum. In these months, they face the onerous task of integrating “the best of” the 22 common core courses in total offered by Yale-NUS and USP, in addition to the “new STEM elements” Tan so favored, into one curriculum that students can comfortably juggle with home faculty requirements while ensuring the curriculum achieves overarching objectives. Is fitting pieces from different puzzles into one picture—while racing against the clock—really so much easier than designing one from scratch?

Colleges Undone

The key to a liberal arts education also lies in an immersive residential experience, close faculty engagement, and more, as has been so eloquently explored elsewhere. Unfortunately, the new information presented does not present a promising image for what the New College can accomplish. It does not suggest that the New College will represent an enhancement from either existing offering, let alone compensate for the loss of Singapore’s only liberal arts college.

Chan promised a step-up from the USP’s current two-year residential program. However, any residential ambition is necessarily pitched against the infrastructural capacity of the New College compound: around 1,600 beds will eventually be made available to New College students. Assuming an intake of 500 students a year and inevitable vacancies, each student can expect around three years of campus housing.

But arithmetics here ignore some crucial details. The total population of the New College will surpass that of YNC and USP each by about 1,000, so they will necessarily be spread across six or seven residential towers of varying sizes. This is not to mention students will have fewer formal opportunities for interaction, restricted to Common Curriculum classes and (only possibly) student organizations. The impersonal scale and magnified distances of the College will then counteract efforts to replicate and enhance the close-knit communities at existing programs, potentially negating the extra one year (or less) of residential life the “merger” promises.

Chan also claimed the New College would “increase accessibility” to small-group teaching in YNC by opening such seminars to students from all faculties, and diversifying major options for students studying the common curriculum. It is unclear how this is not already achieved by the USP’s small group teaching practices, but the assertion also elides the reduction of options by the “merger”. 

Before the “merger”, a prospective student could choose from a wider range of majors by enrolling in the CHS, or personalized instruction in the 14 majors of YNC. However, since all majors in the New College will be hosted by NUS faculties, the “merger” essentially eliminates that choice and forces everyone into the former, when the in-depth study into a major is precisely where, for those who need it, individualized learning is the most important.

What’s Missing?

A university experience is defined as much by its ability to engage students as its ability to protect them. Over time, the residential communities of YNC and USP have both developed policies tailored to their students’ needs, often after hard-won battles with administrators as the petition argues.

The hard-won gains of students in either institution can be easily lost. The integration of the colleges will mean their consolidation under NUS control, and college-specific policies can be replaced by wider NUS policies whose inadequacies they were meant to supplement in the first place. Yale-NUS, for example, has developed an arguably more sensitive approach to supporting survivors of sexual aggression that informed NUS processes in the past, as well as comprehensive measures to support queer students on campus.

While these student protections should never be exclusive to small communities, the fear is that NUS is uninterested in extending these protections and may simply eliminate, rather than adopt, them as it absorbs these communities. Indeed, all major speeches by relevant decision-makers have ignored these issues entirely. When Yale-NUS’ Dean of Students Dave Stanfield was asked on these policies’ longevity specifically, he could only give his personal commitment to “try to introduce some” of them. That reassures no one.  

Minimum Benefits, Maximum Costs

Weighing benefits against costs is the essential part of any decision-making process, and this is no exception. No matter what motivations for the closure there were—financial sustainability, strengthening inclusivity, or else—a participatory, transparent process could have examined possible alternatives to determine the most favorable option from all stakeholders’ points of view.

Unfortunately, NUS, through a top-down process of non-consultation, is determined to pursue a path with minimal reward and maximal cost. As I have shown above, the New College faces arduous and numerous challenges that must be overcome within a compressed timeline to even stand a chance of improving from its predecessors. It bears hefty hopes, but is unlikely to accomplish them without disproportionate efforts that NUS has shown no plans for. 

The damage the closure has caused is astronomical. Not only has NUS dealt horrendous blows to the lives of students and faculty alike, but it must also grapple with the reputational self-destruction its decision has inflicted, in Singapore and on the world stage. If that is not enough, it has become responsible for the erasure of two distinctive, established, and internationally competitive programs from Singapore’s education landscape, with nothing to replace them except a scarcely planned and potentially compromised New College. 

This “merger” is not inevitable. It is a human decision, and they made it. The question is— should they have?

Correction: A previous version of the article stated that the total population of the New College would surpass that of YNC and USP, combined, by 1,000. In fact, the population of the New College surpasses that of YNC and USP each by 1,000. We have since made the clarifications in the article.

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