Merger or Acquisition? – NUS’ top-down saga



Image Credit: Loh Xin Yi


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On 27 Aug 2021, students across NUS received an email at 9:18 AM, with the header: “Two new colleges to deliver flexible, interdisciplinary education more accessibly, and at greater scale.” It detailed that the Yale-NUS College (YNC) and the University Scholars Programme (USP) would merge into a new college. YNC was to stop admitting students and have its final batch graduate in 2025. 

The new school intends to offer majors across NUS, and adopt the best of YNC’s and USP’s curricula. With a shift to interdisciplinary education, there will also be an enhanced focus on the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Though this signals a rather ambiguous departure from YNC’s core focus on the liberal arts, internal discussions have only just commenced between the  faculty members of the two colleges. More information is likely to be delivered in the future.

Alongside this news were the prior announcements of two other projects. One is the College of Design and Engineering, formed from the merger of the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment. The other is the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), formed by consolidating the undergraduate programmes from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences with the Faculty of Sciences. CHS has since accepted its inaugural batch in 2021.

In total, approximately 18,000 students are to be affected by the three projects—and these all happened within the span of less than a year.

University Scholars Programme and Yale-NUS college declared to be no more

Discontent boils over in NUS

Over the course of the next few days, people flocked to Reddit, news platforms, social media, and petitions to express their severe dissatisfaction with the decisions. Even parents took to the Straits Times forums to air their grievances on the matter. Among these reactions, what anchored them was the practically unanimous opinion of NUS’ “lack of communication and consultation” on the CHS and YNC-USP merger.

The YNC-USP merger suffered the biggest backlash by far. As cited by one parent from the ST forums on 1 Sept, she had “not received any correspondence from the college about the merger.” In particular, the students and faculty professors themselves were uninformed of this decision, and were only made aware of it through the electronic circular.

When probed about their reactions, some felt that they were purchasing a certificate to a college that would “no longer exist.” Meanwhile, students who were intending to apply or wait for entry could only lament the “opportunity costs” of waiting it out, especially after rejecting offers from other prestigious and international universities. Adding on to that, some professors had turned down other job offers in favour of working at Yale-NUS, and were now faced with the possibility of uncertain futures and unstable employment. Indeed, when considering the several merger decisions, it seems that Yale-NUS, as a separate and prestigious college, got the shortest end of the stick.

Yale-NUS student life will be missed by the students

Meanwhile, other independent publications have brought marginalised voices to the table. These articles interviewed students affected by the CHS and CDE mergers, and continue to fuel the debate on NUS’ consultative processes (or lack thereof).

A petition surfaces

As forewarned in our previous article on CHS, it appears that NUS has committed two more faults with the two new mergers; and according to the student body, this points to a glaring fact: a severe lack of transparency. This is not the first time that the students felt blindsided by NUS’ “top-down” decisions. In an effort to counter this style of management, some students drafted up the #NoMoreTopDown petition to address NUS President Dr Tan Eng Chye and the NUS Board of Trustees.

In rejecting the YNC-USP merger, the petition attempts to hold the NUS administration accountable for its opaque decision-making processes, and perceived lack of regard for the YNC and USP community. This points toward the students’ hopes for more consultative and collaborative processes between NUS’ top-down and ground-up bodies.

As of Oct 19, the petition has garnered 14,700 signatures, and is en-route to reaching 15,000.

#NoMoreTopDown petition clambering its way to 15,000 signatures

When this petition was posted, many students appeared skeptical. Some called this approach “naive.” What’s more, in view of past petitions that resulted in little to no change, it seems “unlikely” that this call would yield “any further action.” Nonetheless, this is not for naught. The reactions speak for themselves, and crafting petitions is just one avenue for students to air their grievances to the management, and have their voices be heard.

In fact, this crucial tipping point saw the result of such change efforts. Beyond the current provisions (i.e. consultations), NUSSU President Wee Su-Ann recently shared how the Union has tried to “ensure that the student voice is represented at the decision making table.” And though it “​​appreciates the consultations that Senior Management has extended, it is [their] belief that more can be done to ensure that [students] continue to be regarded as key stakeholders of this University.” Resultantly, NUSSU’s recommendations were accepted, and currently, the working committee for student representatives will guarantee seats for students from FASS, FoS, SDE, FoE, USP, and YNC. This demonstrates a change in NUS’ attitude, and provides hope for greater collaboration in the future.

However, as rightfully put by Wee, the “process of change has only just begun.” Even as these approaches can be seen as piecemeal in one sense, in another sense, they pave the way for greater strides made towards transparency, accountability, consultation, and eventually co-operation. Let’s hope for better, do better, and be better.

Political developments: “Que será, será”

Aug 31 further saw new developments in this controversy. In a heartrending Facebook post, Workers’ Party MP Jamus Lim echoed the sentiments of the Yale-NUS students and termed the loss of the liberal arts curriculum as “regrettable.” 

In view of great apathy among Singaporeans, Lim goes on to reinforce that the liberal arts education needs to be held to a higher standard and to a greater degree of importance. After all, aside from creating avenues for debates, a liberal arts education is deeply valuable in fostering critical thinking. According to Lim, he felt that this was not the first time that NUS tried to stifle debate; in a previous incident, a course on dissidence — which was to be led by esteemed playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at — got unequivocally removed from the Yale-NUS syllabus. Conversely, Yale and Pericles have chosen to clarify that administrative issues were the main catalyst that led to its cancellation, not censorship. They further share that there was no government intervention at all.

In ending his post, Lim shared some infographics on the questions he was going to file during the Parliament sitting.

The Parliament Sitting Commences

Lim was not called upon during the Parliament sitting. Nonetheless, as seven other MPs also submitted questions on the YNC merger, it was a topic that had to be eventually addressed.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing stepped up to the plate, and broadly addressed 1) the reasons why NUS decided on the merger, 2) the decision-making process, and 3) support for students, faculty, and staff, in the transition. 

Points 1

First off, Chan shared that the merger aimed to reduce costs in the face of two facts—one being that YNC demands a large amount of subsidies from the government, and the other that YNC, “through no fault of its own,” could not raise enough to reach its fundraising target. As such, the merger intends to expand on the economies of scale to save on costs.

Another motivating factor was to combine the best features of both colleges into an interdisciplinary college. In response to criticisms over devalued education, Chan mentioned that it was “grossly unfair to faculty members in NUS…[and] 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.”

Spliced together, these facts tell the story: To kill two birds with one stone. Merging could reap the continuing benefits of both colleges, and save costs from the education ministry’s end.

Points 2 and 3

Considering the “sensitive issues of strategy and finance,” the main stakeholders were limited to the senior leadership of both universities. Meanwhile, other stakeholders were going to be brought in later on during the possible “transition issues.”

Regardless of such intentions, a shock is still a shock; the news remains abrupt to many YNC and USP students, and still accounts as a top-down decision in that way.

NUS’ response

When parents of Yale-NUS students demanded for a large town hall meeting, the President’s initial response was to propose small group consultations with the respective Yale-NUS students. This was swiftly rejected by more than 260 parents of Yale-NUS students. Thus obliging to an online town hall meeting, the President shared that he was “pleased” to meet these parents over a virtual platform and discuss with them the implications and decisions of the YNC merger. Invitations were extended to affected USP students, and the town hall meeting took place on 28 Sept.

After the town-hall meeting, however, many students came away unsatisfied. Rather than clarify answers and provide the intended closure, Dr Tan steered his responses towards a critique of the #NoMoreTopDown petition. According to him, there appears to be “quite a bit of misinformation.” For one, the “College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is not a merger.” Another point was that the “College of Design and Engineering (CDE) and CHS [underwent more] than a year of [student] consultations.”

So far, it seems like both sides have their valid concerns and worries—and though provisions have been made to consult NUS students, students are left wanting. Ultimately, more needs to be availed to genuinely include and engage the community. No longer is it enough to simply satiate the student body on a whim; it must be done consistently and with mutual grounds for respect.