Sunday, September 26, 2021

Why the New College Does Not “Broaden Access to an Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts Education”

Story | Yi Ming Ng & Rohan Naidu, Guest Writers
Photo | Joshua Vargas

“While the establishment of a New College may be seen as a sudden change, it is in fact a natural step towards ensuring broader access to inclusive interdisciplinary liberal arts education at NUS for the longer term.” 

Faced with grieving students, angry parents, puzzled donors, and a curious public, NUS and its affiliated stakeholders have consistently responded with this one-liner as the main justification for the “merger” of Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP), both complementary offerings of an interdisciplinary education in NUS’s ecosystem, to form “New College.” 

This rationale is worth scrutiny. What does “broaden[ing] access” mean? While NUS’s other recent moves, such as the formation of the College of Humanities and Sciences, are indeed applaudable developments which do “scale up” a liberal education by enabling a myriad of major pathways for thousands of students, it is less clear that the specific move to form New College is of a similar nature. 

Given that the enrolment of the proposed New College will be 500 students a year, equal to the sum of the existing class sizes of around 250 for each component college, this rules out “broaden[ing] access” to mean that the merger will expose more students to an interdisciplinary curriculum. The other possibility is that the merger will allow more of the hypothetical 500 students to receive a Yale-NUS style of liberal education. 

Yet, New College, as currently planned, bears little semblance to Yale-NUS. Yale-NUS is a full liberal arts college (LAC)—a stand-alone institution with its own in-house faculty, academics, majors, degree, research facilities, and identity. The New College slated to replace it is a supplementary residential program with a common curriculum for NUS students. These are two very different institutions. 

Following the top-down decision that rendered its reasoning and plans unclear, the latest responses from NUS make it clear that the “merger” is primarily about increasing both affordability and access to a Yale-NUS education to more Singaporeans.

We argue that this “merger,” amounting to the closure of Yale-NUS, will fall short of its goals as it misplaces concern on local affordability and proposes a structurally inadequate solution that loses the core elements of Yale-NUS. What are these differences between the proposed New College and Yale-NUS? And why does New College in its current form not “broaden access to an interdisciplinary liberal arts education,” which is, in then Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s words, the “purest form of multidisciplinary education”? We discuss five points arguing how the closure of Yale-NUS, an experiment proven highly successful, will decrease access to an interdisciplinary education and result in the loss of a unique model of education.

1. Unprecedented access to a university education for low-income students 

Yale-NUS is often portrayed as a privileged place for the elite, and so it may seem fair that it must be dissolved to make room for an “inclusive education.” This could not be further from the truth. With its need-blind admissions policy for Singaporeans, Yale-NUS offers the most generous financial aid packages for low-income students in Singapore. As lower-income students, the authors received 100% financial aid throughout college, including full residential stay and dining access. One of us is also the first in our family to attend university. In fact, we are far from outliers—half of our peers are able to attend Yale-NUS only through generous financial aid.

This, in fact, makes Yale-NUS more financially accessible than NUS, where students would have forked out a substantial portion of the tuition fees, and foregone residential living—an essential opportunity for low-income students to make connections and flourish in a new environment. 

Concerns about Yale-NUS’s affordability are thus unfounded. This life-changing access to Yale-NUS is enabled by the college’s small size, large per capita endowment, and capacity to attract donors through its unique reputation as Asia’s top liberal arts college. This unprecedented commitment to access is itself a primary factor behind concerns of the college’s long-term financial sustainability. Yet without Yale-NUS and  the resources to go abroad, deserving low-income students in Singapore will lose all access to a full liberal education.

2. The importance of small class sizes for all classes

At this point, the key question is: what is a “full liberal education”? The fundamental component is small class sizes, most crucially for classes in a student’s major and minor (a student’s main specializations). This will not be preserved at New College, where small class sizes only apply to the Common Curriculum, amounting to just 30% of undergraduate coursework. However, in Yale-NUS, students are able to clarify ideas and develop their doubts with their peers on the spot through tight-knight and two way discussion-intensive classes (typically smaller than 15 students). Every one of these classes is led by faculty (and a small handful of lecturers). The experience is crucial for developing skills and connections in major and minor classes. 

While Yale-NUS has its own in-house faculty teaching 14 majors, many uniquely interdisciplinary and without equivalents at NUS (such as Urban Studies and Arts and Humanities), students of the New College will complete their majors in their home NUS faculties. As NUS is a large research university, many seminars are facilitated by graduate student teaching assistants instead of professors. In contrast, all of Yale-NUS classes are small and faculty-led. Having taken classes in our major specializations at large universities like NUS, Harvard, and Yale, we have often been lost in dark auditoriums, going entire semesters unsure whether our professors even knew our names. In sharp contrast, Yale-NUS has built a community of learning in the tradition of small American liberal arts colleges. 

Small class sizes tangibly make Yale-NUS’s teaching pedagogy unique. For example, the increased time faculty can spend engaging with each student in class allows for more time to explain the theoretical underpinnings of concepts, beyond their practical applications. Tom White, Instructor in Humanities (Documentary, Photojournalism and Visual Communication) at Yale-NUS, also attests to Yale-NUS’s unique seminar style classes that draw on student input, such as individual interests, background, and capabilities, to shape the direction of the class, in contrast to one-way “knowledge transfer” teaching styles. Such a plurality of educational styles are needed in NUS. Yale-NUS offers the unique opportunity to immerse one’s major specialization at a more personal level, which will be lost with the impending integration of Yale-NUS’s faculty into the wider NUS community.

 3. Broader impact of low student-faculty ratio on life paths

More broadly, the effects of the low faculty to student ratio of about 1:8 at Yale-NUS College reach beyond the classroom. The low ratio cultivates strong ties and deep trust between faculty and students, which has made Yale-NUS a leader in undergraduate research

One of the authors, initially an intended literature major, became an astrophysicist thanks to an intimate, intensive six-person seminar on black holes (featuring a frame-by-frame dissection of Interstellar), followed by an apprenticeship at a telescope in the mountains of Chile. The other author wrote a political science senior thesis that is now under journal peer review, with the help of two- to three-hour consultation sessions with their faculty advisor. While writing our capstones (senior theses), Yale-NUS students enjoy a level of attention and supervision that is rare even for PhD students at the world’s leading universities. 

The faculty’s dedication to their students has pushed not just the authors, but many more students to achieve much more than they could have expected in their time as undergraduates. Mentored in a culture of deep personal investment, and trusted to take bold leaps of experimentation, Yale-NUS students routinely publish in the world’s most prestigious journals. The heartfelt recommendation letters our professors are able to write place us in the most selective graduate programs. Such substantive teaching, research, and advising opportunities have personally directed both of us to our current academic careers, previously unthinkable to us. 

Crucially, the benefits of such intensive research experiences at Yale-NUS benefit diverse graduates, including future tech entrepreneurs, software engineers, consultants, public servants, social enterprise founders, and ground-up changemakers. All these students benefit from the intensive skills training, concept ideation, experimentation, innovation, and deep engagement in issues inherent in academic research, to apply cutting-edge technological and social science insights to emerging opportunities and social issues. In the past week, many of our peers have publicly attested to the effect a Yale-NUS education has had on their life paths as well, especially as low-income students. Once again, this is fundamentally enabled by Yale-NUS’s full in-house faculty and institutional resources to support the low student-faculty ratio, both of which New College would not experience. 

It is for this secret sauce of the Yale-NUS experience—the invigorating environment, professors’ ability to dedicate lots of time and resources to student’s academic development, and the  opportunity to dive deep in our specializations in personal partnership with esteemed faculty—that many of our Singaporean peers chose Yale-NUS, and that our international peers chose Singapore, over the likes of Stanford, Harvard, and Cambridge. It is precisely this tight-knit atmosphere that the New College will lack without a full in-house faculty. New College students will spend most of their time scattered across NUS, in their home faculties, as they pursue their major modules. This is in stark contrast to the small, dense, and self-sufficient community of learning within the Yale-NUS campus, where students pursue their Common Curriculum and major within the same campus and with the same faculty. 

4. A uniquely international liberal education in the world

Another essential offering specific to Yale-NUS’s unique model of a liberal education is its exceptional access to international opportunities and cosmopolitan composition. 

Yale-NUS is a stepping stone for more Singaporeans to experience, learn, and bring back the best of a liberal arts education from its birthplace—the United States. The College has semester abroad partner agreements with eight top American LACs, including Amherst, Swarthmore, and Wellesley College, known for their intimate size and cutting-edge practices in interdisciplinary learning, teaching pedagogy, and student life. In contrast, only one of NUS’s exchange partners is a LAC, and for a much larger student body. One of the authors attended a semester abroad at Amherst, which directly inspired them to pioneer initiatives at student organizations helping underserved marginalized communities such as the Yale-NUS In-Betweeners Collective (first-generation/low-income student community) and Humanism.Yale-NUS (secular spirituality society). These student organizations were the first of their kind in Singapore.

Yale-NUS also has unique overseas research partner opportunities, most notably the Yale College Dean’s Research Fellowship, a Yale-NUS partner program with Yale University, which enables students to conduct original research in science under a Yale faculty mentor. The impact of this program on students’ future paths is evidenced by the success of many past Fellows attending top PhD programs today, most recently from the Class of 2021

Beyond research, Yale-NUS’s unique reputation has allowed it to attract prestigious international speakers across these years, including historian Stephen Greenblatt, novelist Pico Iyer, biologist Frans de Waal, President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, businessman Charles Goodyear, writer Amitav Ghosh, journalist Fareed Zakaria, and entrepreneur Kevin Ryan. Yale faculty also fly in to give annual week-long Special Seminars to Yale-NUS sophomores on a myriad of academic disciplines. 

While it has not been announced whether these agreements and programmes will carry over the New College, the very nature of Yale-NUS being an autonomous LAC, as well as formal affiliation with Yale University, is no doubt a crucial factor in this wealth of international opportunities, which will be lost.

Finally, Yale-NUS has a 40% international student body, and for good reason—a highly global student community is essential for a liberal education, not just in providing new perspectives, but also in helping to shape new cultures of learning and living.  This percentage is almost unmatched, not just in Singapore, but across the world. For instance, the proportion of international undergraduate students at Singapore’s publicly-funded universities, Yale University, and Williams College (a top American LAC), are all around 10%. On the other hand, New College’s ratio has been projected to be 25% immediately after the “merger,” while long-run admissions quotas are yet unknown, but likely to decrease. Yale-NUS is thus a one-of-a-kind cosmopolitan undergraduate village in the world, more relevant than ever with the increasingly global nature of today’s most pressing issues requiring unprecedented international understanding and cooperation, and in line with Singapore’s priorities to stay “open and connected to the world.” The present plans for New College, while increasing the local cohort size, will also lose this trait of a Yale-NUS education.

5. Community buy-in and co-creation of collegiate ecosystem

A less visible but no less important component of a LAC is the community’s commitment to its underlying ideals, which grounds an ecosystem of vibrant co-creation. This starts with explicit community buy-in of the sometimes uncomfortable ideals of a liberal education, including valuing both disciplinary and multidisciplinary learning for their own sake. This is attained through the self-selection of like-minded students and faculty during admissions and hiring, such as students who are personally interested and committed to explore academic disciplines beyond their majors, who are only a subset of the student body. To be clear, we are not making a value judgment here, but only pointing out personal preferences—specializing deep into one’s major is terrific too! On the faculty end, Yale-NUS has attracted senior endowed faculty from around the world to build “one of the most exciting learning communities ever.” 

An example of how these philosophies fundamentally shape the Yale-NUS academic curricula is epitomized by the following quote from Andrew Bailey, Associate Professor of Humanities (Philosophy) at Yale-NUS:

“We brought in a consultant in year zero. He asked us to all write down “What do you want your students to be able to do by the time they’re done with the common curriculum?”. And he was going to structure his seminar around answers, presupposing that this was the most important question to answer when designing a curriculum. We rejected the question, thank the gods. The more fundamental question, we felt, was what our students would want to do, and who they would be, by the time they graduated. The question he wanted to ask concerns skill. Ours were about what those skills would be directed towards. Totally different paradigms.”

Yale-NUS is also highly consultative and reiterative, evidenced through the recently concluded Common Curriculum review, and student co-organization of a week-long academic immersion programs in Singapore. Beyond the classroom, progressive student organization and diversity policies also grant the resources, freedom, and ease for rapid student-led creation of path-finding student organizations and community events, such as discussed previously here. With the nature of New College as a supplementary “honors college” for NUS students, as well as the likely closer integration with NUS student policies, these important elements are unguaranteed. 

Patching the gaps in the “scaling up” dream

These points illustrate that New College is not going to be the “scaled up” liberal arts college it is touted to be. NUS’s current plans for the New College, by doing away with Yale-NUS’s structure as a stand-alone LAC, substantially dilutes the essential traits of a Yale-NUS education that we have discussed: a necessarily large per capita endowment, small class sizes for all classes, low student-faculty ratio, professional development opportunities, and fundamental collegiate philosophies. This will be the loss of Asia’s top liberal arts college, and will decrease access to an interdisciplinary liberal education in Singapore. 

In light of this, NUS should reconsider its decision, with or without Yale, before it impacts younger Singaporeans (especially low-income students), Singapore’s economic and civic landscape, and the country’s reputation at the cutting edge of higher education in the world. We ultimately care for the continuation of the promise of a Yale-NUS education to high school students—having once been bright-eyed high school students ourselves enthralled listening to the Yale-NUS admissions officer’s pitch—and not so much about external affiliations. 

Please consider preserving Yale-NUS as an autonomous liberal arts college and expanding its cohort in the future, after the college builds its resources further, to truly “broaden access to an interdisciplinary liberal education” at NUS. This will be for the best, even if under a new name like “New College.”

Ng Yi Ming graduated in 2021 with a major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and spent a semester abroad at Amherst College. He is a Master’s student in Urban Science, Policy and Planning at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Rohan Naidu graduated in 2017 with a major in Physical Sciences after formative experiences as an exchange student at Yale University and the University of Chile. He is a PhD candidate in Astrophysics at Harvard University.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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