Lessons from Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse

The following paper explores the motives, policies, and impact of the initial 2002-2011 phase of Singapore’s hub building Global Schoolhouse strategy (GSH) . It examines the economic, labor-market, and demographic concerns that motivated the Singaporean government to aggressively internationalize higher education. The paper argues that the political backlash that forced the Singaporean government to de-internationalize GSH’s targets has also been the catalyst for a firmer policy shift toward a knowledge hub. The paper is organized into four sections covering Dr. Knights’ hub development modes, the motives and policies of the GSH, the impact of 2011’s strategic pivot, and a discussion of the generalizable lessons from 2011’s strategic pivot.

During Singapore’s 2011 election, the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) suffered a record setback by securing only 60.1% of the general vote. This was PAP’s lowest performance since independence in 1965 (Waring, 2014). The loss of five seats to the Workers Party, which campaigned on a platform of immigration policy reform, indicates that immigration policy was a critical point of contention in the election (Waring, 2014). The immigration policies that upset the Singaporean status quo were those enacted in accord with 2002’s Global Schoolhouse Strategy (GSH). The GSH is an aggressive strategy to develop Singapore into an education hub serving South, East, and Southeast Asia. Responding to 2011’s local discontent, the PAP has moved to de-internationalize the GSH’s targets and emphasized local enrollment development. This paper argues that 2011’s political backlash was a catalyst for a strategic shift from Dr. Jane Knight’s talent hub development mode towards the knowledge hub development mode. The paper is organized into four sections covering Dr. Knights’ hub development modes, the motives and policies of the GSH, the impact of 2011’s strategic pivot, and a discussion of the generalizable lessons from 2011’s strategic pivot.

Hub Development Modes
Educationalist Dr. Jane Knight (2014) defines education hubs as “a critical mass of education and knowledge actors aiming to exert greater influence in the new education marketplace and to strengthen relations between local and international counterparts” (2014, p. 85). In the same vein, Dr. Knight defines a country’s hub development strategy as a “planned effort to build a critical mass of local and international actors strategically engaged in education, training, knowledge production and innovation initiatives” (2014, p. 85). Simply put, strategic engagement in hub development constitutes a concerted effort by national governments to create economies-of-scale in the education sector by clustering attractive academic initiatives together, bundling them into a national brand, and enabling policy reform in education, finance, housing, taxation, labor, immigration and intellectual property (Sidhu, 2010).

 Dr. Knight organizes hub development strategy into three modes based on the government’s motivations. student Hubs are developed in order to tap into the foreign and domestic student market and are categorized as a profit-driven internationalization strategy. talent Hubs are characterized by a focus on human resource development and retention of educated human capital. Knowledge hubs are centered on the production and distribution of knowledge and innovation. In a knowledge hub, the government offers favorable business incentives to foreign universities and R&D centers to collaborate with local partners in developing research, knowledge, and innovation (Knight, 2014).

 The motives and policies of Singapore’s GSH strategy carry elements of all three modes. I argue that the policy balancing act between Singapore’s economic, labor-market, and demographic motives blends the GSH strategy between the student, talent and a knowledge hub development modes. I argue that in the initial phase of GSH (2002-2011) the student and talent hub mode dominated the policy dialogue. However, since the 2011 backlash knowledge hub development has taken primacy.

Singapore’s Hub Development Motives
Singapore is a 700-square-mile island city-state that lies just south of the Malay Peninsula. Since independence from the UK in 1965, Singapore has survived and prospered despite a lack of natural resources and contentious relationships with its neighbors. Between 1965 and 2005 Singapore averaged an eight percent annual growth rate (Waring, 2014). Per capita GDP grew from US$428 in 1960 to the fifth highest in the world at US$59,936 by 2014 (Waring, 2014). This is a remarkable accomplishment given their small population size, just 5.1 million people, and lack of natural resources (Waring, 2014).

 Academics argue that Singapore was able to accomplish this growth because it benefited from a highly technocratic government, an efficient bureaucracy, a small population, and an ethos for state-led development (Lo, 2014).  Singapore’s geographic positioning is both a boon to its export-led industry and a vulnerability. The government’s constant state of crisis and competition speaks to Singapore’s geo-political fragility (Sidhu, 2010). Singapore values its people as its only natural resource, and in doing so, promotes education as the historic means by which the city-state advanced from a marginalized proletariat to the second-highest per capita income in Asia (Sidhu, 2010). It is no surprise that when faced with new manufacturing competition from China, Singapore turned to education as the means to re-calibrate their industrial export-led economy toward a knowledge economy.

 Until the 1990s Singapore’s economy, like the other Asian Tigers, primarily benefitted from manufacturing and logistics. During the 1990s China’s Open Door Policy allowed Chinese labor costs to undercut Singapore’s manufacturing sector. Unable to compete in labor costs Singapore’s Economic Planning Committee signaled a shift toward a knowledge economy by releasing 1991’s Strategic Economic Plan for Education that advocated broad targets like lifting GDP spending on education to 5% and achieving 60% tertiary enrollment by 2000 (Gopinathan, 2011). Although the push for a knowledge economy began in 1991, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis signaled the call to action needed for change (Sidhu, 2010). In 1999, a government commission published the Singapore 21 Report, which stated a need for Singapore to transition toward a knowledge economy, internationalize, and to attract foreign talents (Sidhu, 2010). Following the ethos of the late 90s, Singapore’s government would attempt to alleviate a number of social and economic concerns through the long-term implementation of 2002’s Global Schoolhouse Strategy (GSH).

 Initially, the GSH was a commitment by the Singaporean government to create a tertiary education hub in Singapore. The GSH is not a single policy, but rather a strategic approach to immigration, education, finance, housing, taxation, and labor policies (Sidhu, 2010). The GSH is realized through the coordination of a number of government agencies, particularly the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Economic Development Board (EDB). The government aimed to foster an educational hub through the World Class Universities Initiative (WCU), enroll 150,000 international students, increase international enrollment to 20% of public university capacity, increase GDP spending on education from 1.9%  to 5%, and expand local tertiary cohort enrollment to 30% by 2015. The GSH strategy was diverse, in that it spanned the range of student, talent, and knowledge modes. Due to the market liberalizations opened by the GATT and China’s entry into the WTO, the GSH’s student hub strategies aimed at accessing the US$2.2 trillion international student education market. At the same time, the nature of the social and economic motives bundled within GSH’s targets represented broader efforts to create a talent and knowledge hub (UNESCO Bangkok, 2006).

 One of the initial motives of the GSH was to support a culture of knowledge and innovation within the labor force. In order to succeed in the knowledge economy, which uses skills and innovations as an economic driver, the government wanted to educate the citizenry to value self-sufficiency, innovation, entrepreneurialism and a commitment to self-betterment (Sidhu, 2010). Singaporean career sentiments were largely risk-averse;hence, people valued safe careers in academia, government, and manufacturing (Sidhu, 2010). In order to foster a service-led economy, Singapore needed to create the spaces for creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, break down the bureaucratic mindset, and tolerate failure without repercussion (Sidhu, 2010). The Singaporean government concluded that higher education could mold the brightest minds into future entrepreneurs and innovators. The motivation to remodel the Singaporean public’s’ approach to risk, ingenuity, and knowledge creation places the GSH within the mode of knowledge hub development.

The GSH and the Singapore Science and Technology Plan set into motion the establishment of the World Class Universities Initiative. They claimed that they would turn Singapore into the “Boston of the East” by inviting elite foreign universities to establish joint degree programs and R&D centers in Singapore (Gopinathan, 2011). Singapore would sponsor the joint venture in exchange for prestige, research sharing, and knowledge capital. The programs that were established were hard sciences within graduate degree-issuing public universities, foreign branch campuses, and R&D centers housed within university-owned science parks. The hard science programs were aimed at keeping graduate level Singaporean students within Singapore for their graduate studies–stemming brain drain and increasing labor force skills. The branch campuses were targeted at importing foreign students to pursue foreign degrees, and the R&D centers were part of the national push to develop a frontier sciences hub (Sidhu, 2010). The GHS’s WCU initiative encompasses the three modes of hub development.

The WCU initiative began by allowing two of Singapore’s public universities, NUS and NTU, to be semi-autonomous government-linked corporations (GLCs) with governance akin to a non-profit corporation (Mok, 2008a). The government continued to express authority through funding and maintaining ministers on the board. The intention of the GLC status was to allow the universities to make semi-independent decisions and negotiate with foreign institutions whilst enjoying the bureaucratic expedience of government-linked status (Sidhu, 2010). On behalf of the autonomous universities, the EDB was inspired by the GSH strategy to attract partnerships with prestigious universities from the global north (UNESCO Bangkok, 2006; Sidhu, 2014). The aim of the partnerships ranged from student enrollment and skills development to knowledge creation. Prestigious joint master’s programs in the sciences with French Grande Ecole, Brown, and Carnegie Mellon, PhD programs with King’s College and Imperial College, and an MD with Duke-NUS are amongst some of the knowledge- and research-centered degree programs housed within the public universities. More inclusive partnerships were formed with the Wharton School of Business and MIT to establish the new foreign-collaborated public universities SMU and SUTD, respectively. The intention of attracting prestigious research-oriented partnerships and creating foreign collaborated universities was to diversify degree offerings, import best practices, and expand enrollment capacity. In doing so, Singapore would retain local talents, train skilled labor, and attract highly talented foreigners. These motives align with talent and knowledge hub modes.

Beyond the myriad of prestigious partnerships, the EDB invited international branch campuses (IBCs) to supply mass appeal and enrollment. The UNSW’s Singapore branch campus was originally set to enroll 15,000 students (Ng, 2010). The 15,000-student enrollment target is enormous when we consider that Singapore’s third-largest university, SMU, only enrolled 8,000 students in 2014 (SMU, 2014). This target illustrates that branch campuses were intended to lead the sector in enrollment capacity and mass appeal. Singapore’s student hub model was model on the premise of Singapore hosting foreign higher education institutes to attract foreign students. In some regards, the student hub mode, represented by mass enrollment IBCs, was a continuation of Singapore’s supply-linked export economy, rather than a genuine contribution to the knowledge economy. The initiative to attract foreign educational ventures spans the three hub development modes.

 The GSH target to enroll 150,000 students by 2015 was a response to Singapore’s skilled labor shortage. Since the 1970s, Singapore had struggled with a consistent labor shortage in multiple sectors. To remedy this, Singapore has invited foreign talents to fill the vacancies (Waring, 2014). Foreign talents are especially attractive for a rapid build-up of a skilled labor force because their skills are injected into the economy. Unlike those of a citizen, a foreign talent’s skills are gained without requiring the host government’s investment in developing their skills, education, health, and welfare from childhood (UNESCO Bangkok, 2006). The GSH was a ploy for Singapore to attract brain gain from elsewhere in Asia (Ng, 2010).

 Not only did Singapore need the foreign skills, it also needed the demographic boost. Singapore’s low fertility rate, at 1.15, is well below the replacement rate (Waring, 2014). Despite government-led initiatives such as a government-sponsored dating network and a “baby bonus,” the population continues to age (Waring, 2014).  Prime Minister Lee stated the demographic motivates of the GSH best when he said, “We need babies, we need to grow our own talent and the education system will develop our own talent. But we must also attract talent from all over the world” (Waring, 2014, p. 876).

 In order for Singapore to attract foreign talents, the GSH offered a number of government-sponsored incentives to would-be international students. The Tuition Grant Scheme offered a S$15,000 grant to international students who agreed to work in Singapore for three years after graduation (Waring, 2014). The government offered permanent resident status to international graduates, student visas to anyone with proof of enrollment, an Employment Pass Eligibility Certificate amount to a one year post-grad visa extension, and a 16-hour work allowance to international students. In addition, the Singapore International Graduate Award offers 240 PhD scholarships to international PhD candidates (Daquila, 2013). These incentives helped Singapore’s international student population to occupy 20% of local university seats by 2011 (Waring, 2014).

 Singapore’s geographic proximity to the expanding Indian and Chinese student markets was integral in attracting enrollments. Singapore is less than a seven-hour flight from  3.4 billion people, half the world’s population (Huang, 2014).  Singapore projected that 70% of its enrollment would come from Asia, particularly China, Malaysia, India, and Indonesia (Ng, 2010)(Daquila, 2013). Singapore courted Chinese students and talents between 2002-2015. The GSH not only courted Chinese students, but also Chinese professors. Chinese academics were lured to Singapore by the high pay, standard of living, and government support for research (UNESCO Bangkok, 2006). Singaporean secondary schools matched the GSH’s targeted 20% international enrollment, recruited within Mainland China, and aimed to channel these students into the university system (UNESCO Bangkok, 2006). From a knowledge hub perspective the GSH was a reaction to China undercutting Singaporean manufacturing and trade. From a talent viewpoint GSH is reliant on Chinese foreign talents for skills and demographics. Yet from a student hub vantage GSH is a response to China’s increased education spending. This illustrates that the motives and perspectives of the GSH strategy are inextricably linked together.

Singapore’s student recruitment incentives were successful in building up international enrollments. In 2002 there were 50,000 international enrollments, and by 2008 there were 97,000 (Davie, 2014). Due to the dual challenge of the Global Financial Crisis and rumors of low quality in private institutions, the enrollment numbers fell to 91,000 in 2009 (Davie, 2014). In order to pursue enrollment goals and protect Singapore’s brand power, the government established the Private Education Act of 2009, an intervention to create quality assurance schemes, CaseTrust and EduTrust. To shore up doubts about private institutional solvency, the Singaporean government launched the CaseTrust scheme in 2009 to provide tuition insurance to students in the private sector, in order to protect them from institutional insolvency. *Edutrust Scheme was a tiered ranking system that rates the business practices of private educational institutes (PEIs). The criteria included independent examination boards, disclosure of financial reports, and other forms of institutional transparency (Daquila, 2013). Only the PEIs that passed the highest tier of Edutrust criteria were permitted to recruit internationals students (Waring, 2014).

 EduTrust was successful in eliminating the lowest quality private businesses by encouraging mergers among PEIs. In 2009, there were estimated to be 1,000 PEIs operating in Singapore, but by 2013 there were 340 EduTrust registered PEIs– only 48 of which had the highest tier criteria (Daquila, 2013). The Edutrust scheme is concerned with financial and operational transparency and  is intended to provide consumer knowledge about PEIs and eliminate inadequate PEIs. The private sector is populated with lower quality teaching and skills training institutions and not knowledge creating institutes. EduTrust and CaseTrust were yet more government-sponsored incentives to sustain private sector enrollment levels and  protect the GSH’s student and talent hub development targets (Choon, 2009). 

 The Pivot: A Knowledge Focused Strategy
The previous sections illustrated that the policies of the GSH strategy support the three hub development modes simultaneously. From 2002 onward, the Singaporean government justified using taxpayer revenue to incentivize international enrollments and build Singapore into an educational hub. After the 2011 election, the government found themselves in the midst of a dilemma between the local backlash to the GSH’s social policies and Singapore’s earnest need for foreign talents.

Due in part to the GSH strategy, Singapore’s non-resident population grew to 28% in 2012,or 1.5 million of a total population of 5.3 million (Daquila, 2013). In the same year, Singapore hosted 84,000 international students, with 33,000 in private institutions and 51,000 in public sector institutions (Daquila, 2013). International enrollment grew from 50,000 in 2002 to 91,000 by 2011 (Davie, 2014). This influx of international students relative to the slower pace of the capacity growth made competition for seats intense. Between 2002 and 2011 there were between 20,000 and 25,000 international students applying for about 3,000 positions in public institutions (Waring, 2014). This escalating competition resulted in Singaporean students not getting seats in the public institutions. Consequently, the rejected students had to pay much higher costs to continue their studies abroad (Lo, 2014). The Singaporean public thought it inappropriate for the government to use tax revenue to incentivize international students, whose competition pushed local students out of university places. This competition, along with a spike in the cost of living and social tensions, became the nexus for the populist Singaporeans First (SF) movement (Waring, 2014). SF was a protest movement that swayed public opinion before the 2011 elections. Capitalizing on the SF sentiment, the Workers Party, secured five seats in the parliament and the long ruling PAP won only 60.14% of the vote in the 2011 election. This backlash forced the PAP to re-calibrate the GSH from 2011 onward. The government could no longer afford to continue the GSH at the expense of the taxpayer.

 In order to alleviate the local backlash, the government diminished the role of its student and talent modes and supported knowledge hub development. The government abandoned the goal of enrolling 150,000 internationals by 2015. They capped international enrollment within the public universities at 15%, raised tuition rates for international students, and abolished the Employment Pass Eligibility Certificate and the offer of permanent residency upon graduation (Waring, 2014). Singapore’s ability to pivot the policies of the GSH away from the financial goals of student enrollments signaled that the GSH’s most crucial motives were in the labor market, immigration, and population policy, rather than accessing the international student market (Waring, 2014). In ending these incentives Singapore signaled an attention shift towards the knowledge mode.

 In order to ease local tension, the government expects to create 3,000 new university places in the public universities by 2020 (Waring, 2014). Singapore means to accomplish this by promoting the former polytechnic SIT and private institute UniSim into degree-awarding universities by 2014. They intend for these GLCs to expand capacity to meet the 3,000 seat target. Likewise the government reiterated its commitment to increase the local cohort enrollment from 26% to 30% by 2015 (Waring, 2014). The government’s recalibration of priorities toward the local population’s needs is an aspect of de-internationalization and,one could argue, a necessary step away from the hub development.

 Singapore continues to pursue joint programs within the WCU initiative; however, the joint degrees match Prime Minister Tan’s motivation to offer “the widest range of programs to the widest range of people” (knowledge@SMU, 2011, p. 1). Singapore is moving to attract a wider range of people rather than the larger amount of people, this is a subtle shift away from mass appeal programs to more diversified offerings. During a 2011 press conference on the role of higher education after the election backlash, PM Lee highlighted art schools as the drivers of innovation: “arts institutions such as LASALLE and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts have played an important role in developing skilled manpower for the arts and creative industries in Singapore (knowledge@SMU, 2011, p. 1). This is particularly evident in the liberal arts college Yale-NUS. Despite being a branch campus, Yale-NUS is not a mass enrollment institute, because it caps enrollment at 1,000. PM Tan continued to emphasize the value of liberal arts as a vital factor in the recalibration of the Singaporean labor force: “this principle of comprehensiveness means learning widely even as one develops specialist skills” (knowledge@SMU, 2011 p.1).

 Along with creativity and ingenuity, the government has focused on building up its research capital. In 2011, the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) fourth National Technology Plan was renamed the Research, Innovation, and Enterprise plan (RIE). The RIE commits
S$16.1 billion to competitive funding, scientific talent, and research collaboration (Huang, 2014). This is the NRF’s largest financial commitment to knowledge hub development since the department’s creation in 1991. A clear illustration of Singapore’s knowledge hub development can be seen in the NRF funding sent to NUS and NTU for R&D center development.

 Opened in 2012, NUS’s new Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) is a four-building interdisciplinary research center that houses R&D collaborations in human systems, energy systems, environmental systems and urban systems. CREATE houses partnerships with eleven leading foreign universities including Cambridge, Peking University, MIT, and others. CREATE hosts research collaborative laboratories that connect NUS with international research initiative such as UC Berkeley’s Research Initiative on Sustainable Energy, the Peking University Research Center for a Sustainable Low-Carbon Future, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Nanomaterials for Energy and Water Management Program (NRF, 2015). The CREATE Campus employs 1,300 researchers, 900 of whom are involved in the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) (NRF, 2015). SMART is a research laboratory that houses five frontier science initiatives (NRF, 2015). CREATE, SMART, and the other research campuses hosted in Singapore are not attached to degree programs, but rather are aspects of industry linkage and research. They represent a strong step toward knowledge hub development. Due in part to RIE funding and the research centers hosted at NUS, NUS became a world-class university, ranking 26th in 2016 (Times Higher Education, 2015).


Discussion: Beyond the Global Schoolhouse
The initial phase of the GSH strategy was set to operate from 2002 to 2015. Now in 2015, the Singaporean government has commissioned the Committee on University Education Pathways Beyond 2015 (CEUP) to evaluate the initial phase and make recommendations moving forward (Waring, 2014). If we look over the motives, policies, and events during the first phase we can extract meaningful lessons for the future of Singapore’s hub development beyond 2015.

The GSH policy survived the 2011 backlash because, as a multidimensional strategy with policies within the three hub development modes, the GSH had the room to adjust itself to the changes in the political and economic climate ushered in by 2008’s GFC.  Despite the abandoned targets in student enrollment, the GSH was adequately diversified enough to continue with its talent and knowledge modes. In an economic system that values specialization, the GSH serves as a counterexample that illustrates how diversification of strategy can lead to flexibility and sustainability.

Even before 2011’s Singaporeans First Movement, the number of international students was declining. Singapore’s international enrollments peaked in 2008 (Davie, 2008). That decline was due to two economic factors that were beyond the control of the GSH. The decline began with 2008’s GFC and the subsequent decline in demand. The enrollment decline continued as Singapore’s cost of education and living was increased. By 2014, Singapore became more expensive than the US as a destination for study (Davie, 2008). As Singapore became more expensive it lost mass enrollment to competition from IBCs in Malaysia (ICEF, 2014). Due to the cost of living and the decline in demand it was inevitable that Singapore would have to adjust its hub strategy toward more value-added and specialized programs in order to promote “specialization” as its comparative advantage. That said, we can argue that the strategic pivot away from high international enrollment was not only influenced by the public sentiment, but also as a response to the new economic motives. The government’s pivot was only made more decisive by the election. In some ways the government’s responsiveness could be seen as a ploy to appear highly sensitive to public opinion and hence more “democratic.”

 Even after the 2011 election, Singapore couldn’t shake off their demographic and workforce need for foreign talents. In response to the 2011 election, founding father Lee Kuan Yew announced, “ If Singapore depends on the talent it can produce out of three million people, it’s not going to punch above its weight. So you’ve got to accept the discomfort, the local citizens’ fear that they are competing unequally for jobs. It cannot be helped” (Waring, 2014, p. 881). Mr. Yew’s realpolitik consideration over the unpopular policies of immigration showed the severity of the concern. Singapore continues to attract highly skilled foreign talents. Initiatives such as CREATE, which employs over 1,300 highly skilled workers, is just another avenue for skills attraction. RIE funding also offers 120 annual international PhD scholarships. Singapore’s need for foreign talents remains evident, and Singapore will have to continue to adapt its avenues and incentives.

The final lesson from the 2011 election is that, had the Singaporean government properly informed the public of the positive effects of foreign talents, trimmed enrollment incentives after the GFC, and properly provided seats for the Singaporean people, the government would not have been as shaken by the 2011 election (Waring, 2014). Singapore’s PAP has operated within the country with such long-term impunity that they have grown accustom to levying top-down strategies across the government. The 2011 election was a democratic wake up call. Had the government been socially sensitive, the pivot should have moved gradually with the post-GFC decline in enrollment. Continuing to fund the internationalization incentives even as numbers continued to decline was a mistake. Despite being ineffective to attract increased enrollment, their cost became a point of political contention. Had they been trimmed sooner, the PAP would have taken some steam out of the Singaporeans First movement. Due to the high cost of living and the de-internationalization policies Singapore’s future hub development strategy is much less student-centric. This presents a challenge for the future of Singapore’s hub development strategy because diversity was the GSH’s key strength.





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