Running a university is a challenging enough task at the best of times. Maintaining syllabus standards, keeping up student numbers, strengthening revenues from fees, developing a robust reputation in academic excellence, and ensuring that one’s charge stands out in a world already so full of equally good universities – all these disparate elements must be delicately balanced.
Throw into the mix an international campus and the complexities are multiplied, not least the unenviable task of maintaining the standard for both the teaching staff and student body so that it is on a par with the original campus.
All while providing a viable incentive for a student to sign up for what is probably the most important educational decision of his life with the offshore campus rather than the headquarters.
This is precisely the challenge Professor Robert Evans took on when, in 2012, he assumed the post of pro vice-chancellor at the Singapore campus of the Perth-based Curtin University, though he will be the first to tell you that the decision was made with relatively little angst.
In addition to having been actively engaged in Asia for many years both as a teaching and research academic, Prof Evans and his wife have two children who were nearing completion of their university studies. “We saw our chance to do something different. Our boys are currently enjoying the freedom of home without their parents watching over their every move. The proximity to Perth and shared time zone was also a great advantage as we’ve found maintaining ties with our friends and family in Perth very easy.”
The Singapore campus officially opened in December 2008. By that time, Singapore was already Australia’s largest South-east Asian trading partner with services to the market, including education, growing at around 10 per cent per year. But beyond there, that was already a 20-year history between Curtin and local educational institutions such as the Marketing Institute of Singapore, Singapore Human Resource Institute and Singapore Institute of Materials Management.
As Prof Evans points out, a full campus was a logical next step. Since Curtin wanted to ensure a high quality presence in an Asian educational hub, a local campus here allowed it to better replicate the full campus experience of the students in Perth while retaining full control of academic standards. “Singapore as a country is a great place for international students to study. With its safety, proximity to the rest of Asia, housing and public transport, it’s tailor made for students.”
As pro vice-chancellor, Prof Evans’s main duty is to ensure academic standards among the 2,000 students are enforced to the same exacting standards as the principal Perth campus.
However, he cautions, a campus should be more than just a place to pass exams. “I want to ensure our Singapore students grow as individuals during their stay with us.
“One method is through our student engagement programme which builds academic skills – for eg, time management and academic writing – career development workshops – for eg, resume writing, interview skills, presentation skills – and personal development – for eg, building self-confidence and negotiation skills.
“Recreation is also important. Photography, yoga and music are examples of active clubs the campus supports.”
Prof Evans taps into an academic and administrative corps of approximately 40 full-time and 90 part-time staff to push out what needs to be done.
Among his bucket list of things to do, he lists further engagement with government and industry to determine how Curtin can best help them address future needs of the workforce. “We also need to continue to maintain the high academic standards of the university so that students receive not only a great education with Curtin, but also a great experience with Curtin Singapore. To satisfy the latter, building on our student engagement programme is a priority.
“Ultimately we want to see our graduates successfully embark on the career of their choice.”
Such an outcome is ideal, but why would a prospective student enrol with Curtin Singapore instead of the main campus in Perth?
Cost is a key marker. At the current exchange rate, tuition fees at the Singapore campus are approximately 55 to 60 per cent that of the Australia campuses. Another major benefit is that Singapore students work on a trimester teaching model which speeds up the completion of courses.
The range of courses is the third plus point. “Curtin is renowned already in Asia for strong programmes in health sciences and business, and increasingly in areas such as logistics and project management. We have very well established reputations in nursing, logistics, marketing and human resource management, although accounting, finance and banking continue to be our most popular programmes.”
The entire curriculum is set by Perth-based academics and all exams are marked in Perth, adds Prof Evans. Assignments are moderated in Perth and student evaluation of teaching performance, course pass rates and graduate outcomes are all benchmarked against the Perth and other campuses, including Sydney and Sarawak.
“Singapore is unique in its location and cultural diversity,” he says. “International students, in particular, become part of a dynamic regional hub, with many of the world’s largest companies either headquartered or with significant presence in Singapore.
“This offers opportunities for our students to network and find placements with companies either in Singapore or in their home-country subsidiaries.
“I am pleased to note that on key academic measures, the Singapore students often outperform their counterparts in Perth.”
If it’s not already clear, Prof Evans is extraordinarily proud of its charge and the calibre of its student body. His first impression of the quality and enthusiasm of the students, and the commitment of the staff has never wavered.
“Having been here for just over one year, I've seen the high quality and enthusiasm remain. The diversity and size of the student body has increased. We have students from over 30 different nationalities. Our recent graduation ceremonies in Singapore were a great success. Knowing our graduates are joining over 16,000 Curtin alumni in Singapore and over 170,000 worldwide is very satisfying.”
Not that this is a reason to let up on striving to be just that little bit better. At least, not on Prof Evans’s watch. “While our existing campus has physical limitations, there is no ceiling placed on either courses or students numbers. There won't be a moment when we all sit back and say 'We reached our goals'. We will continue to respond to the demands of industry in producing work-ready graduates.”