Concerns about academic freedom 'unfounded'

Concerns that the merger of Yale-NUS College with the University Scholars Programme (USP) will have an impact on academic freedom in Singapore are unfounded, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

He said there were similar concerns when Yale-NUS was established 10 years ago, which also proved to be baseless.

Mr Chan said: "Few believed then that Yale-NUS would live up to its ambition... It is perhaps ironic and a testimony to National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS' efforts all these years that Yale-NUS is now seen as a paragon of academic freedom in Singapore."

He was speaking in Parliament after MPs from the People's Action Party and Workers' Party asked questions on the merger announced on Aug 27.

He also said that the faculties of arts and social sciences at NUS and other autonomous universities here have had a long history of teaching and research, sometimes on potentially sensitive and difficult topics, long before the establishment of Yale-NUS.

He said: "It would be grossly unfair to faculty members in NUS and other autonomous universities to suggest that their teaching or research is in any way less rigorous, of lower quality or less free than that of the Yale-NUS faculty."

Mr Chan added that Yale-NUS' current policies on academic freedom were created by taking reference from NUS' practices, and that these practices have remained unchanged since then.

He also said that Singapore's universities continue to seek new partnerships with foreign universities where the Republic's institutions can value-add meaningfully.

He said many of Singapore's newer institutions were started in partnership with leading global universities, and these have evolved and matured, and sometimes ended.

He said: "We have much more to learn from others, not just from universities in the United States, but equally from Europe, Asia and elsewhere. But to be an attractive partner for others, we too must have our own unique value propositions.

"We cannot and should not be a cloned version of others, no matter how successful they may be."

Mr Chan added that Yale University - an Ivy League university in the US - has been a longstanding friend to NUS and a visionary partner of the Yale-NUS College.

He said Yale has agreed to play an advisory role in the New College as a member of the college's international advisory panel and that Singapore is open to exploring other collaboration opportunities with it in the future.

Workers' Party MP He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) asked what options other than the merger were considered and why they were not taken up, and what the impact of this decision will be on Singapore's other collaborations and international reputation.

She said: "There is a certain impression given that maybe even though we (Singapore) might approach other external parties for similar collaborations in the future, will we then suddenly decide that actually we have had enough, we have benefited enough and we are going to forge ahead (on our own)."

Mr Chan said his ministry has milestones to check to make sure both parties find it mutually beneficial to continue a relationship.

He added: "Even if we try to learn from others, we must be prepared and be confident to chart out our own way, to have our own unique value propositions. And that is how we will continue to go forward.

"So, at this point in time, I don't think this partnership, coming to its natural checkpoint, would have any implications for any of the other partnerships that we are in or exploring with others."

Ng Wei Kai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Concerns about academic freedom 'unfounded''. Subscribe