SINGAPORE: New Universities Trust to ensure funding

Singapore will set up a national endowment fund known as the Singapore Universities Trust to support higher education institutions through economic downturns, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced during his annual National Day Rally speech this week.

The trust will be set up as part of US$4 billion to be provided to universities over the next 20 years to build up endowments.

Some $2 billion will be deposited in the trust to ensure support for universities during economic downturns, Lee said in his address at the National University of Singapore on 29 August.

Political analysts said that with the Singaporean government keen to build up a knowledge-based economy it was setting up the Universities Trust to avoid the kind of cutbacks in its higher education sector seen during the Western recession, particularly in Britain, whose universities are closely watched in Singapore.

The trust would also provide scholarships and bursaries for deserving students at a time when Lee said university fees would have to be higher to pay for the government's huge investment in higher education.

Speaking in unprecedented detail on higher education funding, in what is normally a lengthy keynote speech on general issues including the economy and immigration, Lee also called on Singapore's universities to build up their donations and endowments, in particular via alumni.

"Many graduates from here have gone on to do well in life and they can now be tapped to raise funds and give expert advice," he said.

The prime minister, who has a first class degree in mathematics from Cambridge University in England, has been watching that university's 800th anniversary fundraising campaign.

Launched in 2005, outgoing Cambridge Vice-chancellor Alison Richards announced in June this year that it had reached £1 billion ($1.5 billion) two years ahead of schedule, thanks to generous alumni and other donors.

In his national day speech Lee said the endowment would also enable universities to launch new initiatives without depending so much on direct government funding. Besides the Universities Trust, he said the government would provide three-to-one matching funds for donations for new projects and 1.5-to-one for existing universities.

A number of new projects were in the pipeline to expand university places, particularly in the sciences, Lee said.

For example the new Singapore University of Technology and Design, a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and Zhejiang University in China, was set to open in 2012.

Lee also announced a major new investment in a third medical school for Singapore, in collaboration with Britain's largest medical school at Imperial College, London. It is to be known as the Imperial-College Nanyang Technological University Medical School and will "create more spaces for Singaporean students who want to study medicine and attract good international students, who may live and work here as doctors", he said.

The new medical school will enrol some 150 undergraduates a year, Lee added. Singapore's existing medical schools have also been expanding.

Saying it was "important to offer top students excellent local options for tertiary education", Lee also announced that a new 'Oxbridge-style' collegiate university town for the National University of Singapore was due to launch two residential colleges, known as Cinnamon and Tembusu Colleges, and a graduate residence as part of its initial phase to be completed in August 2011.

"We want the best for our kids," Lee said. He added that the endowments would ensure that students got a good education "wherever they go".

"Students should spend their formative years in a top-class local university to create bonds with their peer group," he said, even if they later attended universities overseas.

"We must maintain a Singaporean core in our society and gather talent and resources around this core to build a better Singapore," he added.

Lee said that by 2015 universities in Singapore would be on course to admit as much as 30% of the cohort to higher education, compared with the present rate of 26%.